Originally created 12/30/98

California oranges may leave consumers bitter about prices and taste



VISALIA, Calif. -- California orange growers complained Tuesday that fruit is being sold too soon after last week's freeze. It may look fine on the outside, but customers could be puckering up and gritting their teeth once they open bad oranges.

Tension over the quick sales was evident during a standing-room only meeting where growers and packers whose oranges were frozen for three straight days were shown how to separate the good fruit from the rotten.

Lane Anderson, a grower who also works for packer Pandol & Sons in Orosi, said most growers with reputations on the line have honored a moratorium, but some smaller operations are trying to recoup their losses by taking advantage of soaring fresh fruit prices.

"In my opinion, it's the greedy and the unscrupulous," said Anderson, adding that he had told one grower who begged him to ship his fruit to find another packer. He did not identify the buyer and officials haven't publicly identified growers who have shipped freeze-damaged fruit.

"I think if we put too much on the market before we know what's going on, then we're going to have consumers buying stuff that's less than ideal," he said. "We need two to three more weeks to let this fruit dry out so we can make sure we're putting a good product on the market."

A shipping moratorium lasting three days from when oranges are picked is supposed to buy time for quality control. Most growers depend on the honor system, knowing that inspections and the threat of fines won't stop everyone from shipping bad fruit.

"These people do not want to jeopardize the customer base," said Shann Blue, grower representative for the California Citrus Mutual, a trade group.

The freeze is officially an economic disaster in California's Central Valley. Gov. Pete Wilson made the declaration Tuesday. But even with federal help, the $1.5 billion citrus industry faces mass layoffs now that entire lemon crop and most of the orange crop is believed to have been ruined. The state is sticking with a preliminary estimate of $591 million in losses.

With California's reputation on the line for top-quality navel oranges, which typically are eaten rather than used for juice, industry gatekeepers agree with many growers, packers and trade representatives that it would be wisest to wait several weeks before oranges picked to see how the damage manifests itself.

A navel orange is not supposed to be shipped when inspectors find at least two full wedges are damaged, whether the membrane is ruptured or water-soaked. A standard 40-pound box cannot be shipped if 15 percent of its oranges are found in noncompliance with that standard.

Inspectors randomly select oranges once they are boxed and make visual inspections. But even regulators acknowledge they don't judge flavor and can do little to stop shipments of untasty fruit. So, although they may look like succulent on the outside, the pulp may be grainy, dry and chewier than normal. Rotten oranges could taste like bitter cold medicine.

"Do you know what quinine is?" asked Lynn Thomas, deputy agricultural commissioner for Tulare County, where most of the state's navel oranges are grown and 75 percent of the crop was frozen on the trees, a $293 million loss.

It's still uncertain how much of California's winter orange crop can be salvaged. Growers have just begun canvassing their fields and slicing open oranges to gauge the damage.

Their options are to leave the orange on the tree, where it can heal or rot even further, or pick it immediately for juice -- before it becomes rancid and unusable.

However, turning eating oranges into juice is a last resort because they won't turn a profit for the farmer. For instance, California farmers average only a third the earnings from oranges used for juice as they would for selling a comparable amount of fresh table oranges.

Even if California growers try to sell all their salvaged oranges as juice, it won't increase the juice supply enough to drive down supermarket prices for a variety of reasons.

One reason is a lack of processing capacity. California usually ships most of its crop as whole fruit. Last year, the state processed just 7.5 million gallons of navel orange juice and just 6 million gallons of valencia juice. Florida produces 7.5 million gallons of juice in just one week this time of year.

Another is market share. Minute Maid is buying none of its juice from California, turning primarily to Florida and Brazil. And Tropicana, the industry leader, also gets most of its juice from Florida. While it intends to buy some California juice, it won't accept any that doesn't meet standards for quality and taste.

"Unless it meets Tropicana's high standards, we're not going to buy it," said Mark Gutsche, the company's vice president for communications in Bradenton, Fla. "If they're squeezing oranges with a bad taste, we're not going to buy it. And our suppliers know that."