As the Vidalia onion season picks up its harvesting pace, a move is finally beginning to take shape to help improve the marketing of sweet onions overall.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

As I’ve covered the Vidalia onion beat, grower-shippers for years have told me how the industry needs some sort of label or certification to ensure that that the sweet onions they market are actually sweet.

All too often, that bag of so-called sweet onions a shopper takes home wasn’t really sweet and leaves a bitter taste in the shopper’s mouth.

National Onion Labs Inc., a Collins, Ga., agronomic management research and consulting operation that certifies produce flavor specifications, has hired a consumer products advocate, a new position.

In this role, Vidalia region native Lauren Dees Mizelle’s first efforts have her working with retailers to campaign for establishing flavor criteria for onions carrying sweet onion labels or stickers.

She’s out to help educate retail produce managers how they can improve sales by offering shoppers sweet onions that are truly sweet.

With exploding worldwide sweet onion variety production and demand, Mizelle said there are neither governmental nor industry-enforced sweet onion standards.

She sees the effort as a complete supply chain partnership.

“This (certification) is necessary because Vidalia onions and sweet onions are being marginalized by the products on the shelf that actually aren’t sweet,” Mizelle said.

“What’s happening is, the consumers are starting to think they don’t actually like sweet onions because they don’t taste sweet. This hurts growers and retailers both.”

Mizelle said National Onion Labs doesn’t want mandatory regulations, but is telling retailers to start asking their suppliers if the onions they receive are really sweet.

She said the lack of qualification allowing any shipper to affix “sweet onion” labels or stickers to their onions has confused consumers.

Retail response

Count Joe Watson as a retailer who would welcome such labeling.

Watson, director of produce for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Supermarkets — which has stores along the coastal Gulf Coast from central Louisiana to the Mississippi-Alabama state line — plans to promote the sweetness of Vidalia onions by erecting large store displays featuring cooking demonstrations and big signs.

Watson said he too has experienced the frustration of picking up bags of sweet onions he later discovered were more pungent than he thought they’d be.

Many times, shoppers mistakenly grab the wrong bag or thought they put a bag of sweet onions in their shopping carts.

Other times, though the onions are labeled sweet, the product from a certain shipper may not have reached that high brix level.

Even if it had high brix, high pungency levels could nix the onion’s sweetness, Watson said.

“We work hard to make sure we sign and label our onions,” he said.

“We also work with particular shippers who work to get sweet product to our stores, so we’re confident it is what they tell us it is.

“Regardless how such a labeling system could be set up, aligning ourselves with shippers who can meet our needs for our stores with sweet onions, it makes all the sense in the world because we can satisfy our customers by getting those repeat sales instead of having them going home and getting disappointed and staying away from sweet onions for a while.”

Let’s hope this effort gains some traction and helps prevent buyer remorse.

That could benefit everyone in the sweet onion deal.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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