(Nov. 7) Peeling green onions surely is among the most tedious processes in the produce industry, but after more than $12 million invested in years of research and development, the process has gotten much easier for two grower-shippers.

Following more than 30 years of experimenting with automated green-onion peeler prototypes, Joseph Spingola, president and general director of Frank Spingola & Sons Ltd., Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, this summer installed three peeling machines in a new 42,000-square-foot packing plant.

Fresh Innovations, Yuma, Ariz., which owns a 24% share of Spingola & Sons, uses the same technology, said chief executive officer Victor Smith.

Not only is the automated process faster and neater, but also it offers a safer method for processing green onions. With fewer hands touching the green onions, there is less chance of contamination.

“Food safety is much better,” Smith said. “People are touching them in a good, safe environment (in the packing plant), rather than in the open field.”

Within a few years, the proprietary technology could more than double Spingola & Sons’ output, Spingola said.

The automated peelers sort, wash and peel the green onions’ outer layers using streams of water. They also trim the onions’ roots and leaves, and size the onions.

“The end product is just beautiful,” Smith said. “It’s like each onion has been washed and polished.”

Smith said his company’s practices meet food safety standards set by Santa Maria, Calif.-based Primus Labs, EurepGAP, and several others.

Spingola & Sons has a team of engineers and machinists that invents and builds its equipment. The team built about six green onion peeler prototypes before they found the right design, Spingola said. Fresh Innovations’ team works with Spingola & Sons’ team to build equipment.

Some parts of the machines are patented, but Spingola said the companies have not yet decided whether to seek a patent for the entire process. He said his company had invested more than $6.2 million in research and development over the years. Smith declined to say how much Fresh Innovations invested, but he said it was more than $6.2 million.

FASTER AND BETTER

The automated peeler also makes it easier to fill orders for particular sizes of onions, Spingola said.

The machine has three belts. It separates the onions into small, medium and large and sends them down the appropriate belts for packing.

Previously, Spingola & Sons’ green onions were bunched by hand in the field. It was costly to have laborers sort them there, he said.

Spingola estimated the company shipped about 300,000 cartons of green onions last year. It shipped about 400,000 this year, when it was able to use the peeler for only about a month before the end of the season. Next year, Spingola said he expects to ship about 525,000 cartons of green onions. Within two years, he said the annual volume could expand to 1 million cartons.

Spingola said the company installed three peeling machines and it plans to install two more.

Green onion peelers provide safer, faster process
Frank Spingola & Sons Ltd., Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, is one of two companies with an automated green onion peeler that moves the process from the field to a plant. The company installed the machines this summer, and automation will allow it to double green onion production.