(Dec. 16, NATIONAL EDITOR’S COLUMN)

I was scanning some headlines that were deposited in my inbox in the form of “Google alerts” (by the way, how did we cope before the Web?), and I saw that online grocery FreshDirect had come up with a new rating system for its Web sales of produce.

The story said Long Island City, N.Y.-based FreshDirect’s Produce Rating System gives customers a “foolproof way to ensure that the ripest fruits and crunchiest veggies are consistently delivered to their doorsteps.”

The ratings go like this: 5 star — never better; 4 — great, delicious; 3 — good, reliably decent; 2 — average, inconsistent quality, generally OK; 1 — below average, expect wide inconsistency in quality, probably out of season.

I admire the pluck of FreshDirect to give consumers more direction in choosing online produce (selection is obviously a big handicap in remote purchases) like this concept, but really, I wonder how many consumers will buy “1 star” produce and how often FreshDirect will slap that label on a luckless carton of produce.

After all, are our children ever homely? Aren’t they always at least “good and reliably decent”? Isn’t the used car we are selling on Craigslist in “excellent” condition, notwithstanding the torn driver’s seat and creased fender?

Will FreshDirect be eager to label any fruits and vegetables, no matter how marginal, with the dreaded “1 star”?

Not often, I’d bet. Yet on the other hand, if you, a value oriented shopper, had a choice between a 5-star rated peach at a premium price or a 2-star nectarine at a discount price, you may be swayed by 2-star fruit for its price appeal.

However, too often in the world of produce, the most forlorn looking produce is the most expensive because of seasonality or because a weather event has stressed the supply.

So no easy solution for FreshDirect and its customers, but let’s give the Produce Rating System a chance. After all, the company states it has filled more than 7 million orders since opening for business in 2002.

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A big topic in the industry now is the effect of the recession on fruit and vegetable sales.

I spent some time pulling some numbers from the USDA Web portal and gathered together shipment figures from the first week of September to the first week of December. Looking at about 36 major commodities, the USDA data showed that 2008 fresh shipments from Sept. 6 to Dec. 6 were off about 2.6% compared with the same a year ago.

Some of the items that showed significant volume declines compared with last year included tomatoes, pineapples, cantaloupes, pears and asparagus.

At the same time, broccoli, sweet corn, raspberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes, tangerines and watermelons were among the times showing a strong gain compared with a year ago. Variations in supply conditions may account for much in the swings in volume from September through November, but these shipment trends bear watching as the recession appears certain to deepen.

Look for more coverage in coming issues about recession related effects on not only whole commodities, but also prepared fruits and prepared vegetables.

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“Can I ever getcha back?” goes one tuneful Beach Boys song, and Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has indicated in press accounts that the group will soon begin a program to win back or at least hold on to retail shelf space that has been picked up by greenhouse product.

This assignment presents a steep challenge, considering the steady inroads greenhouse tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine have achieved at retail produce departments in recent years.

And that’s not even mentioning the fumbled Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak investigation, which seemed to torture field tomato growers with death by a thousand cuts before it mercifully ended.

Field tomato growers can make their case, however. Value is one important play in today’s economy, as would be words that associate nature and “sun-kissed” with field-grown tomatoes.

Perhaps the consumer message: “You don’t need a greenhouse to grow your tomatoes, and we don’t need a greenhouse to grow your tomatoes either.”

Of course, the campaign is likely more focused on the trade rather than consumers and perhaps the strong food safety commitment of Florida growers can be an important message to buyers.

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No word yet on the stewardship/sustainability index, which has been expected to be announced since the end of October by a combination of trade groups and environmental groups.

As I mentioned on the Fresh Talk blog, we may not hear anything about the sustainability initiative until the involvement of the Wisconsin-based Leonardo Academy is clarified.

A Dec. 17 meeting is scheduled to address an appeal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the executive committee of the American National Standards Institute to withdraw Leonard Academy’s accreditation as a developer of the ANSI sustainability standard for agriculture.

The USDA — along with others in the farm and produce community — feel that Leonardo has not accounted for the realities of commercial agriculture in its work on a sustainability standard so far.

That looks like a five-star tomato on my browser
Tom Karst
National Editor