“Implementing innovations in ripening is difficult. The response often given is that it doesn’t fit or isn’t possible. The latter is nonsense,” says Frits Popma of Popma Fruitexpertise. His long history in ripening bananas and giving advice to companies means he has noticed that more attention should be paid to innovations and that collaborations should happen more often to develop ripening techniques. According to the expert, that wouldn’t just result in much quality gains for bananas, but also for mangoes and avocados. “You can’t get any further if you’re not open to renewing.”
After all these decades of ripening bananas, have we still not mastered it?
“We definitely haven’t mastered it yet. We don’t actually know enough about what happens with a banana during the ripening process. People say bananas are ripe when they’re yellow, but is that when they have their best flavour? Only paying attention to the colour is the same as painting the bananas, but it’s not necessarily the same as ripening. A banana contains about 350 different flavours, but those don’t all come to the surface at the same time or at the same temperature. We don’t know the ideal ripening temperature for the various flavours.”
Is enough attention paid to the possible innovations in banana ripening?
“There’s no training for banana ripeners, which makes it difficult. Besides, the idea has to be sold to supermarkets, and their first question is: what are the costs? They often don’t see the benefits, because they think from their own point of view and they don’t look further down the supply chain. If you present something new that results in a gain, the response is: ‘that means buying prices can come down,’ but that’s naturally not the way to innovate. You need a win-win situation. Towards the consumer as well, because a consumer buying flavourful fruit will return and buy more. People often think a yellow banana is good, but they don’t look at decay, for example.”
How do you look at new storage techniques and innovations to improve the quality of bananas, such as RipeLock or MaxAroma, which were introduced in recently years?
“It’s positive for the market. For example, I’m convinced RipeLock improves quality, flavour and shelf life, but it does come with a price. The buyer has to be convinced of that as well. The technique works, but it has to be sold. With MaxAroma, the banana is given more time to ripen due to adjustments in the software. Shelf life and flavour have improved, that is certain. De Laat put much energy into building an optimal programme. However, it also remains an interplay between ripener and technique.”
The rise of ready-to-eat continues, and you’re also asked for advice about ripening exotics, what have you noticed in that?
“There’s not enough time to experiment and find out how a product ripens best. There’s no schooling for ripeners, you have to roll into it, and you just copy from the person you took over from. There should be more respect for these people and the product they work with. Fruit needs time to ripen. It’s often bought cheap, has to be sold for much, and the ripener in the middle is left to figure it out. That ripener is the most important link in the chain. A product becoming worse by repacking, for example, not every salesperson realises that.”
Do you have an example of that?
“Last summer I worked for a company in Russia where they wanted to ripen mangoes. At the time, I said: those mangoes can’t go anywhere until they’re ripe. That is what happened, and the container of mangoes bought by this importer was sold in two hours. The ripe mangoes now can’t be stocked up on for that trader anymore, but that’s because they have the discipline to follow the ripening schedule.”
“There are good ripening programmes, but the ripener can personally set them up. That’s not necessarily a problem, but you can set up a nice ripening plant without guidance, but you won’t be able to ripen bananas. I was at a ripening plant in India, where bananas came out of the ripening chamber boiled. I looked at the software, and found out the parameters were set up wrong. In countries such as Russia, China and India, companies copy European ripening systems, but they don’t have the knowledge. In India, I saw a ripening chamber that was equipped with a ladder going nowhere. When asked why that ladder was there, they said: ‘All ripening chambers in Europe have ladders.’ They built the most beautiful ripening chambers, but they forget the most essential parts. You don’t want to know how many Indian ripening chambers are left empty, because buying knowledge is considered too expensive. That’s all right, after all, I also learnt from experience. That’s the only way to learn. Lately I’ve seen the experts being listened to more. In China, ripening chambers are built with Western technologies, and they’re also listening better in India.”
Does ripening exotics require more than ripening bananas?
“Mangoes are often harvested before they’re ripe, that never results in ready-to-eat. I recently read about a company that could measure the firmness of a mango to decide if it was ripe, but if I drop a pallet of mangoes, they get soft, but not ripe. Internal and external colour and brix also have to be measured. The optical sorters that can do that have already been made, but not all factors have been researched well yet.”
“For mangoes, for example, the season shifts from Peru to Brazil to Senegal, but we don’t know how these specific products from these countries work. It’s not known how to achieve the right flavour for these different mangoes. I’ve seen that getting less attention nowadays, everything has to be done quickly. They might say a product is ready-to-eat, but my question is: when?”
“It’s even more difficult for avocados, because these trees flower throughout the year. With mango trees, you know that they can be harvested after 100 days of flowering, with avocados it’s more difficult to get a homogeneous product. Hass avocado can be coloured black, but that’s not the case for all varieties, and the questions remains whether the avocado is then ripened…”
What has to change to deal with these challenges properly?
“I’ve seen more attention for training in the past 30 years, but it’s important to listen to the people working with the product once a project is started. It will always be a natural product. Throughout the supply chain you see less room to deal with these kinds of things due to price and time pressures. Besides, there’s fear of the unknown. Introducing something new will always be difficult. When I worked for Chiquita years ago, we were the first to start transporting the bananas using controlled atmosphere, and the response was: That doesn’t suit our schedule. You have to be open to new things. If you want to adjust something in the ripening schedule, it’s often not possible, but why is that?”
More research should be done into ripening during transport. How long will the model of traditional ripening chambers last?
“That’s something I’ve come across multiple times in the past 30 years, but there are three major objections. Firstly, ripening bananas takes six days. In containers, it takes eight days. In that period, the weather can change, and that has consequences for demand. When the weather is mild in the Netherlands today, bananas sell well, but it might freeze in eight days. Older consumers, who buy a lot of bananas, stay home then, and sales drop. However, bananas can’t be made green again. Secondly, buyers also know a ship carrying ripe bananas will arrive, and they know these don’t have a long shelf life, causing additional pressure on prices. Finally, shipments are difficult to inspect. As ripener, you have to assume that what various gauges tell you is right, but you can’t open the doors to check while they’re at sea.”
“The major companies had plans to use one or two major ripening plants in Europe, but in the end, that idea was dropped as well. Transport times are too long. The same is true for China. When bananas arrive in Shanghai ripened, transport to Beijing last four or five days longer. How do you keep these ripened bananas from decaying?”
And in the field of packaging? For example, you were involved in a project for a banana crate instead of a box. How’s that going?
“It’s deadlocked due to two practical objections. Firstly, the crates have to be returned to the plantations. Secondly, the growers are worried diseases and moulds could reach the plantations in the crates. For a project in India I suggested the banana crate for the national market. The trickiest thing is setting up a pool system, but various parties are in favour of that.”
“Other companies want to stop using plastic in the boxes. A few years ago, a biodegradable alternative was developed, but that developer needed funds to continue developing the product. However, the companies only want to buy a finished product, so that was also deadlocked.”
Positive things were reported about TR4 in recent months. What do you think of this development?
“Plantains are also susceptible to TR4, and that’s worrisome. Just in Africa, 400 million people are dependent on these bananas for their daily food. What do they have to eat when no bananas can be grown anymore? Resistant Cavendish varieties have been developed, but nothing has been planted commercially yet. It seems logical to me that soil quality also plays its part, but it’s remarkable that this often can’t cost anything in the banana sector. I once visited a banana plantation in South Africa, and the soil was hard as rocks because no money was ever spent on it. The water just flowed off the land. As long as the banana prices remain low, no one will make any investments. It isn’t weird that there’s so much cocaine among the bananas, if farmers can’t pay their bills, and this allows them to score.”
Low prices have long been a topic of debate in Europe, what is the situation like in other countries?
“I remember a documentary from a few years ago, in which they sold bananas at a market for 15 cent per kilogram. These salespeople received many comments from their customers. When they increased prices to 2 euro per kilogram, they still sold bananas. It’s even worse in Russia. Supermarkets there use bananas as bait, and they’re on the shelves for 40 to 50 cent per kilogram. This concerns a market of roughly 3.5 million boxes per week. The supermarkets pay the price for that, they have huge losses due to bananas. China just has too few bananas for the market. Local production and import from the Philippines and Ecuador aren’t enough, so importers are looking at other countries, particularly in the region, to import more bananas. Prices are much higher there.”
Would Europe then be in danger of losing its position as a first choice export destination?
“The Chinese are willing to pay for bananas. The law of large numbers plays its part in that. If ten per cent of the Chinese are willing to pay more for the bananas, that’s more than half the Europeans. As Europe, we have to make sure we don’t become the drain of the world. The middle class in India and China is rapidly growing, and they therefore have more to spend on quality. If the market starts focusing on that more, Europe would become a replacement market.”