(Dec. 10) FRESNO, Calif. — Citrus buyers can expect to see more California citrus this season in either corrugated or plastic containers that fit the modular standard.

In late October, the California Department of Food and Agriculture approved a request to allow California citrus growers to adopt two types of containers with a 16- by 24-inch footprint, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

For the past three years, citrus shippers were allowed to experiment with the retailer-requested RPC and Euroboxes and ship up to 5% of their tonnage in them. Nelsen said that despite grower concerns that switching to the new boxes will prove expensive, buyer support for the new containers indicated that their permanent adoption would increase California citrus sales.

“It is expensive to change over the packing lines,” Nelsen said. “Just as importantly, the cost of the individual container is rising. We’re realistic enough to know that some of the costs can be appreciated out, but even so, the cost of the unit gets passed back to the grower.

“What we’re telling the marketers is that whether they do an add-on charge or increase the f.o.b., they have to recapture those costs, because the growers can’t absorb them,” Nelsen said.

A recent study by professors Wayne Howard and Tom Frawley at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, found that capital expenses for the switch would range from $11.2 million to $32 million for the California citrus industry.

The study found that packinghouses would have to spend between $150,000 and $400,000 each to retool their lines. In addition, the study found that the cost of each container would increase as much as 97 cents per box, depending on the number of cartons shipped.

The professors forecast that operating costs for shipping in corrugated Euroboxes will increase a minimum of 30 cents per unit and as much as a dollar, while costs for RPCs will be 30 to 60 cents more per unit.

Now that the CDFA has approved the standardized containers for shipping California citrus, growers and packers can decide for themselves whether, how and when a transition makes sense for each operation, Nelsen said.

Nelsen said customers were interested in the standardized containers because they want to reduce shrinkage, increase pallet stability and reduce labor expenses at retail.

He said the current telescoping carton that dominates the California citrus industry is stackable, does not collapse in transit and remains the overwhelming choice of customers. Nonetheless, he said, interest in the display-ready, standardized containers will continue to increase.