Few things turn off a fresh produce consumer more than biting into a piece of fruit before it’s ready to eat. To ensure that the buyer of that banana, avocado, pear or mango becomes a repeat purchaser — even a loyal customer — shippers continue to refine their ripening capabilities and to work with their retail partners on selling fruit when it’s at its peak.
Unripened bananas grown by Westlake Village, California-based Dole Food Co. Inc. arrive at distribution centers and warehouses, where the banana pallets are immediately loaded into ripening rooms that maintain airflow, pulp temperature, and humidity throughout the ripening process, says Bil Goldfield, Dole’s director of corporate communications.
For 24 hours, Dole fruit is placed under ethylene gas, a naturally occurring gas byproduct of ripening, to initiate the ripening process, in which the internal pulp turns from starch into sugar. The ripening process typically takes 5 to 6 days to ripen to a color stage 3.5 – 4.
“It’s a time/temperature relationship,” Goldfield says. “Once the fruit has reached the desired color stage — typically a color 3: 50% green, 50% yellow — the boxes are shipped on refrigerated trucks to the retail stores. Typically a banana load is at a customer distribution center for 5-7 days.”
Coral Gables, Florida-based Del Monte Fresh Produce ripens bananas and avocados before they ship to retail, as well as mangos for its fresh-cut products, says Dennis Christou, the company’s vice president of marketing.
Del Monte’s ripening process starts by placing palletized fruit inside of specially engineered ripening rooms, Christou says. Ethylene is then applied in gas form inside the room. The gas starts the ripening process, and over the next several days, the fruit is evaluated by trained ripeners who administer necessary changes to temperature to control the speed and duration of ripening.
Current ethylene technology consists of introducing ethylene gas through ethylene generators into the ripening rooms to initiate the ripening process. Before the advent of that technology, Goldfield says, ripening would be done by canisters of ethylene gas introduced through a central gassing system.
In addition, pressurized ethylene canisters were used where ripeners would puncture a hole into the canister to initiate the ripening process.
“The banana ripening rooms used to be conventional ripening rooms, where the boxes are chimney-stacked to create chambers for the air to circulate around,” he says. “In the mid-1990s, the technology moved to pressurized forced air ripening rooms, which moves the air directly through the boxes vs. just circulating around the boxes. This allows for better temperature and color stage management.”
Over the years, ripening technology has evolved significantly, and Del Monte has taken advantage of it, Christou says. In particular, the switch from non-pressurized ripening rooms to pressurized ripening rooms has made ripening more consistent and better controlled.
“We utilize only pressurized ripening rooms for maximum temperature and ripening control,” Christou says. “It guarantees the ability to precisely control temperature and allows our ripeners to provide the best quality produce that consistently meets consumer expectations.”
Over the last three years, Del Monte has installed several new ripening rooms at various facilities across North America. These new rooms are “multi-fruit” rooms that are capable of ripening both bananas and avocados.
After ripening, Christou says, the temperature of avocados must be reduced to around 38F, and multi-fruit rooms are capable of these lower temperatures. In addition, the company’s new ripening rooms are capable of dual temperatures within the same room. That allows the ripener to set the left and right side of the rooms to slightly different temperatures, resulting in more precise control of the process.
Partnering with retailers
Working closely with its retail partners is crucial to Del Monte successfully marketing its ripened fruits, Christou says.
“We review best practices with our customers regularly and remind them of the importance of having the right color fruit on display,” he says. “Consumers are increasingly looking for fruit that is ready-to-eat, so displaying fruit that is ripe helps to satisfy consumers and drive impulse sales.”
Dole, Goldfield says, was one of the first banana importers to implement Modified Atmosphere Packaging technology for shelf life extension. The company continues to utilize the technology.
In addition, Dole’s Technical Services department travels throughout North American to visit customers and to assist in the recommended ripening best practices for each customer's banana program.
“This is not a cookie cutter program,” Goldfield says. “Each retailer has specific needs. Our tech department provides assistance from the arrival to the US port though the distribution chain all the way to the retailer.”