Seed companies look to the future to stay ahead of fresh-cut processors

The fresh-cut produce industry has experienced years of outstanding growth, and processors are looking to seed companies to develop new varieties that will set them apart from competitors.

“They want to differentiate themselves and have something that the next guy down the road doesn’t have,” said Meir Peretz, marketing manager for Zeraim Gedera Seed Co.

Peretz said his company followed the trends in leafy green vegetables, then looked at applying them to fruit. Zeraim introduced the Super Crisp melon, a seedless watermelon that has potential for fresh-cut processors. He said the Super Crisp line was developed to be crispier, firmer and have a darker red interior with a bright rind color that keeps longer.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before watermelons were next,” Peretz said. “Now the demand is really growing.”

The fresh-cut segment has grown so much that seed distributors are focusing on specific aspects of varieties that weren’t as important to produce distributors.

“This part of the industry is something that has become more important over the last five years or so,” said Atlee Burpee, product development manager for Sakata Seed. “I think they’re trying to differentiate themselves. It’s a very competitive market. It’s getting more competitive and the criteria are getting more intense.”

Fresh-cut processors are looking for brighter colors, exceptional taste and texture, firm flesh and high brix. Customers come to expect the best quality of fruit and vegetables as well, so new varieties have to be the whole package.

“We understand that this is the way the industry is going,” said Norma Standerford, foodservice and fresh-cut business lead for Syngenta Seed.

Syngenta is working on new varieties for fresh-cut and developing a baseline for what processors are looking for. Standerford said there’s not much information available on what specific characteristics processors are looking for.

“Right now, they’re processing what they get in the door and paying much attention to what varieties they’re processing,” she said.

Color is important because it’s what the customer sees first and can influence purchase decisions.

“It shows up better on a store shelf and is more appealing to consumers,” Burpee said.

Flesh firmness is an area that is becoming more important to processors. Firmer flesh lasts longer and will give customers the taste and texture they expect. Seed producers use a penetrometer in field test produce, such as melons, to determine the measure of firmness.

“As it breaks down it loses its consumer appeal,” Burpee said.

A similar area is the purging quality of the produce, or the ability to retain water and not leak after it’s been cut and packaged.

“Cut flesh is hard,” Peretz said. “You don’t want to get into the store and have the whole bottom be filled with water.”

Processors have called for an increase in brix, or sugar content. A plant with 12 percent sugar content used to be acceptable, but Burpee said fresh-cut processors now want 14 percent to 15 percent. A higher brix correlates to sweeter fruit, which processors are looking for to differentiate their fruit. Sakata’s watermelon product for fresh-cut, SSX704, has an extra-high sugar content and firm flesh, and Olympic Gold, a melon for fresh-cut processors has a brix of 12 to 13 and has firm, crisp flesh.

The development process can take years before a new variety is ready for fresh-cut processing. The variety is bred from two parent varieties, tested in experimental test plots for four years or longer and then tested on fresh-cut machinery to determine if it will be a viable variety on a larger scale.

“Usually, from a seed development perspective, you’re working 10 years out, so you’re trying to guess the trends,” said Russ Kabaker, crop sales manager of carrots for Nunhems.

Nunhems is marketing heirloom carrot varieties that can be used in fresh-cut medleys. The company looked to heirloom varieties in response to a trend for more healthful attributes in produce. Kabaker said the heirloom carrots have additional neutraceutical benefits over standard carrots. For example, Black Knight is dark root with a white center and is high in anthocyanin, an antioxidant, as is Indigo Winter, a medium-dark to dark purple hybrid.

Processors can evaluate the produce grown in limited trials, but seed developers must keep in mind there’s an intermediate step: the farmer that grows the produce in bulk.

“Another challenge we have is growers are wary about growing just for the fresh-cut industry,” Standerford said.

The attributes of a fruit or vegetable that are important to a grower may be very different from attributes a fresh-cut processor is looking for.

“The criteria they are looking for sometimes correlate to a regular vegetable farmer and sometimes they don’t,” Burpee said. “We can’t forget about characteristics that are important to the grower – and that includes yield.”

Yield, disease tolerance and other grower characteristics are important for new varieties, but the demands of fresh-cut customers are beginning to take a higher

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