Few things have greater impact on overall retail produce sales than banana quality. They are the most visible, most popular and profitable item in the entire produce department – if not the entire store. Numerous studies have shown that banana quality is central to overall customer satisfaction, and there are very few decision makers in the retail produce industry who aren’t acutely aware of this fact. And yet why is it that every day in stores all across America, we still find bananas that are either too green or too ripe; bananas that ripen too slowly, too quickly or not at all?
To shine some light on the subject, we spoke with David Byrne, VP of Thermal Technologies, a global leader in commercial ripening room design and construction. Thermal Tech has installed thousands of ripening rooms for clients worldwide, including 18 of the top 20 retailers in North America.
After starting his career at Chiquita, Byrne has spent the last 25 plus years helping industry leaders get the best possible ripening results using Thermal Tech ripening rooms, giving him unique insight into the daily challenges faced by retailers when it comes to bananas.
Q: Obviously, in a perfect world, every retail store would want to give their customers beautifully ripened bananas. So why is that not the case?
Byrne: That’s a pretty open ended question. A lot of it depends on how bananas have been handled from the time they’re harvested and packed at the farm to when they go out on display. For most retailers, whether you’re buying pre-ripened fruit or contract buying green and ripening the bananas yourself, it all starts with proper sourcing. If you are receiving the same uniformly consistent, predictable quality you expect on a daily basis at every facility, then you should be able to coordinate a successful retail banana program. If not, then you’re likely to have some challenges whether you own ripening rooms or not.
That said, if you are receiving consistent quality and uniformity on the back end but are still having trouble with the quality of bananas on display, there can be a variety of factors at play. For instance: bananas are quite sensitive to extremes in temperature. In its simplest form, that is essentially what ripening rooms do: they precisely control temperature and humidity over a period of time that allows the natural respiration process to occur, converting starch (green bananas) to sugar (yellow bananas) in a way that can be accurately controlled.
They also protect bananas from ambient conditions in the warehouse during ripening. Since temperature is what controls the ripening process, you don’t have to go too deep into the science to understand that bananas exposed to excessive heat or cold for any length of time before or after ripening – during shipping, on the dock, in the DC or in transit to the store – can be negatively impacted. I’ve seen it happen all too often. The good news is this is usually the result of improper handling which is typically fixable.
Q: So sourcing is important as well as handling through each stage of shipping. Are there other factors involved?
Byrne: Well, from there you get to the banana ripening process itself. Bananas are shipped from the country of origin held in stasis at 58 degrees Fahrenheit. This keeps them dormant before the start of the respiration or ripening process. Ripening rooms are designed to initiate and control this process, taking palletized bananas from the containers, loading them directly into the room and uniformly raising them to the proper temperature for gassing, typically 62-64 degrees Fahrenheit. The bananas are then “gassed” with ethylene for 24 hours to initiate the ripening process.
After gassing, the rooms are vented to remove the ethylene and CO2 and temperatures are incrementally lowered day by day until the fruit is ready to ship. The number of days between gassing and shipping represents the ripening “cycle,” ideally five to six days. The length of the cycle can make a huge difference in banana quality at retail, with shorter cycles leading to bananas that are less ripe initially (greener) but that ripen more quickly and often don’t look as good which can increase shrink. Longer cycles produce a better looking banana with greater color that ripens more slowly, which typically generates the best sales results.
Moisture retention during ripening also has a major impact. That’s why Thermal Tech rooms use a low TD coil design and ultrasonic humidification to maintain 90 percent relative humidity during the ripening process. This is critical, because it preserves the naturally occurring moisture content of the fruit during ripening, which not only protects against dehydration, it’s also been shown to reduce scarring while extending shelf life by as much as 12 hours or more for reduced retail shrink.
In rooms without proper refrigeration design and humidification, the natural moisture content of the fruit is diminished during ripening which can stress and dehydrate the fruit, which also leads to poor retail quality. This is an over simplification, of course, because there are many nuanced differences in between what’s been discussed. But overall, the way your bananas are sourced, handled and ripened determines the quality of the produce you have on display. And with proper processes and QC procedures in place, there really is no justifiable reason to have poor banana quality at retail.
Q: Well, I guess that brings us full circle. So if there’s no reason to have poor banana quality at retail, why is it that we still see it so often?
Byrne: Obviously, the demands and concerns of individual retailers vary greatly. That’s especially true when it comes to bananas. It’s been my experience that retailers who prioritize banana quality find a way to always have high quality bananas on display. That usually means controlling the process from sourcing through delivery, often including having their own well-maintained ripening rooms backed by a comprehensive QC program. Of course not every retailer can do business at such a large scale, but with a clear understanding of the process, any retailer should be able to develop the relationships necessary to ensure success.
At Thermal Tech, we specialize in helping retailers, wholesalers and growers across North America and around the world achieve the best ripening results with our rooms. And we’ve seen time and again that the retailers who care most about banana quality – who have consistently beautiful, high quality ripe bananas on display every day – are also the most successful.
Byrne can be reached at [email protected].