PULLMAN, Wash. — Consumers would pay up to 24 cents a pound more for Gala apples that meet specific criteria for eating quality, according to researchers at Washington State University and the Food Innovation Center in Portland, Ore.
Their study correlated data on individual apples with sensory data collected from consumers and determined how much consumers would be willing to pay for Gala apples that meet specific standards for soluble solids and firmness. Galas represent about 15 percent of the state’s apple harvest.
The researchers coupled their findings with instruments used in packing houses to grade fruit. That’s important because there is no direct connection between current grading standards for apples and eating quality.
“The grading standards used for fresh apples are based mostly on appearance, not on eating quality,” said Jill McCluskey, associate professor in the WSU School of Economic Sciences and a food policy fellow of the International Marketing Program of Agricultural Commodities and Trade.
The study was conducted by McCluskey; Anna Marin sensory and consumer program director at the Food Innovation Center; Ron C. Mittelhammer, another WSU economist; and Khaliela Wright, a former WSU graduate student. WSU Extension Specialist Gene Kupferman provided the apples.
“Appearance matters because consumers rely on appearance to select fruit. However, appearance does not make the fruit taste better and it does not translate into repeat purchases,” McCluskey added.
Fresh apples are graded on the basis of size, color, shape, defects and firmness, according to Tom Schotzko, a WSU Extension economist who has followed the state’s apple industry for more than 25 years.
“Grades are a means for facilitating communication between a buyer and seller using terms and definitions that both understand,” Schotzko said. “Originally, grades were set up with the idea that they would also represent those characteristics of that commodity or product that were desired by the consumer so that the grades helped the grower understand what it was that the consumer wanted.
“Over time, consumer attitudes and tastes have changed, and technologies employed in evaluating fruits and vegetables have become much more sophisticated in their ability to analyze those characteristics.
“This research shows that there is some value in emphasizing those characteristics but there is nothing in the grading system that transmits that information from the consumer to the producer.”
McCluskey said the state’s apple industry has been concerned about declining eating quality of apples, particularly Red Delicious. “I was interested in using sensory evaluation and seeing how it affected consumer willingness to pay and then finding out if instrumental measurements could approximate what consumers told us,” McCluskey said.
Panelists in the study were asked to rate the apples for taste, texture, firmness and other attributes. They also were asked to rank color, shape, low price and large size in order of importance when they decided to buy apples and which factors were most important when they made repeat purchases.
“Color was the most important factor in determining which apple to select,” McCluskey said, “followed by price. An overwhelming majority said crispness was the most important factor in repeat purchases with juiciness as the second most important factor.”
Participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay for Washington Gala apples after tasting them. Based on the results, McCluskey estimated that consumers would be willing to pay a 1.4 cents- per-pound premium for Galas with 12.5 percent soluble solids and firmness set at 13 pounds of pressure.
Increasing standards to 13.5 percent for soluble solids and 14 pounds pressure for firmness could yield a premium of just over 24 cents per pound. The average consumer prices for apples at the time of the study was 99 cents per pound.
The study was funded by the IMPACT Center.
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Reporters: Jill McCluskey can be contacted at (509) 335-2835.