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Retailer and wholesaler representatives are opposing the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposal to change to the U.S. Grade Standards for Table Grapes that establishes a special 5 percent allowance for "shattered" (detached from the stem) grapes in consumer containers which occurs either en route or at destination.
The USDA said it was proposing the change in response to requests from growers and shippers of table grapes, who have been seeking changes in shatter allowances of table grapes as a result of the high percentages of grapes now sold in bags and clamshells, which enable retailers to be compensated for the loose or "shatter" grapes. The growers are pushing for changes in shatter allowances for grapes sold in bags or clamshells.
But the conversely higher shatter allowance proposal will have potentially profound impacts on wholesalers and retailers, said Pat Davis, president of the Arlington, Vir.-based North American Perishable Agricultural Receivers (NAPAR) and FMI's executive director of strategic initiatives.
"Receivers buying U.S. No. 1 table grapes - including many supermarket chains around the country - would be required to accept a 17 percent shatter allowance rather than the current 12 percent," said Davis, adding that in certain cases, "the increase would also include other defects, such as scaring and discoloration, thus requiring those buying on 'good delivery' to accept an additional 3 percent for a potential total 20 percent."
While many large retail companies have internal specs for shatter and defects that are far more restrictive than those in the U.S. Grade Standards, Davis said, "Retailers know that whatever amount of shatter arrives at their loading docks will increase dramatically by the time the grapes reach the store shelves" if the proposed changes go through.
Occasionally, retailers need to utilize secondary supply sources for "fill-in" grapes, which would be subjected to the U.S. Grade Standards. Under this proposal, said Davis, "a retailer that received U.S. No. 1 table grapes from a wholesaler with 20 percent shatter put them into distribution to the stores and ended up with bags on the shelves containing 25 to 30 percent shatter. I don't think consumers would appreciate finding nearly one-third of their purchase rolling around the bottom of the bag."
Further, quality standards are also compromised by high shatter rates, said Davis, noting results of a NAPAR-commissioned study, conducted by Deibel Labs, an independent food testing laboratory, to determine if shatter grapes were more susceptible to microbiological contamination than bunched grapes. "Guess what? They are," said Davis, noting that even under refrigeration, "lab tests prove that bacteria grows more rapidly on shatter grapes, shortening their shelf life."
In Davis' view, the proposal "weakens the U.S. Grade Standards by allowing lower-quality grapes to qualify for U.S. No.1 grade. The existing tolerance level of 12 percent for total defects within the U.S. No. 1 Grade for Table Grapes is more than adequate," he said, adding that any augmentation of tolerances by creating a special allowance for shatter only serves to reduce product quality and shorten shelf life.
Davis urged retailers to file comments with the USDA/Agriculture Marketing Services division no later than this Thurs., March 27, 2008.