More strides forward in the division of labor. Creative destruction in the industry that provides green non-slimy leaves to American households:
Posted by DeLong at January 13, 2003 09:39 PM | Trackback
January 14, 2003
Salad in Sealed Bags Isn't So Simple, It Seems
By AMANDA HESSER
UMA, Ariz. For millions of Americans, preparing a mixed green salad is as easy as opening a sealed plastic bag. But here in the land of lettuce, complexity is a given, and time is the enemy.
There is a reason bagged lettuce costs more than twice as much as a head of iceberg. It is not easy getting those perfectly formed leaves, washed and still fresh, from the soil to the table. The process requires speed, technology, secrecy about that technology and plain-old farmers' ingenuity.
Bagged salad sales in the United States have soared in the past decade, exceeding $2 billion last year, according to ACNielsen, the market research company. And while iceberg may still be king, accounting for 73 percent of all lettuce grown in this country, that is a decline from 84 percent in 1992. Consumption of romaine and leaf lettuces like green leaf and red oak has more than doubled since the early 1990's.
"We have a department working on lettuce breeding," said Peggy Miars, a spokeswoman for Earthbound Farm, a grower here whose annual sales have grown an average of 55 percent since 1995. "You don't want a bagful of lettuces that are all flat. That is the main reason we have the fris้e in there for texture. They are also breeding for better colors. Deeper reds are desirable."
Whatever the color, speed is of the essence. The moment the plants are shaved from the ground, the clock starts ticking. Six days is allowed for washing and bagging the lettuce and transporting it around the country, and about a week more to sell it. After that, the leaves turn slimy.
And slimy lettuce can be disastrous. As Bill Zinke, vice president for marketing at Ready Pac Produce of Irwindale, Calif., which processes bagged salads, said, "It's constantly a business of staying up to and ahead of what fields you will be harvesting, not just today and this week but weeks and months in advance."
Earthbound said it was the first company to package lettuce in bags, starting in 1986. And by packaging whole baby leaves instead of mature heads cut into bite-size pieces, it can move lettuce to market without giving it the "nitrogen flush" that bags of cut-up romaine or iceberg lettuce need to keep the cut edges from browning.
But baby greens have to be harvested in just a few days, before they grow too big. Each bag of what the company calls its "mixed baby greens" has at least eight varieties of specialty lettuce, nearly all of which had to be ready for harvest the same day.
For Earthbound Farm, the country's largest producer of organic salads, it all begins in fields here. More than 90 percent of all lettuce in the United States is grown in Arizona and in California, mostly from two regions Yuma in the winter, and the Salinas Valley in the summer.
The places where the greens are sorted look like a Rube Goldberg drawing. Bins of freshly cut leaves are rushed from nearby farms to the packing plant in refrigerated trucks. Then the bins are lifted into a vacuum tube the diameter of a subway tunnel.
In 20 minutes, the vacuum brings the temperature of the lettuce down to 36 degrees, and it goes into cold storage. Maintaining that temperature until it reaches the grocery will keep it fresh for about 15 days.
Inside, the packing plant is cold and wet, and loud as a jackhammer, as enormous production lines ferry the tiny greens from bin to bag. First, they are upended onto conveyors, passing a row of inspectors and sweeping down a flume into the world's largest salad spinners. Then up conveyors they go, to giant scales and bagging machines. More than 14,000 pounds of lettuce can be processed every hour.
This is where the secrets are kept. The way the flume swishes the lettuce and how harshly the spinners treat it affect how much it is damaged and how nearly perfect and dry the leaves are in the bag. A photographer sent to capture the process was not permitted to take close-ups of the newest machines. Pen and paper were heavily discouraged.
"It is a very competitive environment," Drew Goodman, the president of Earthbound Farm, said. "At most, you get six months" before new ideas are picked up by rivals.
"With the different service providers and maintenance people," he added, "most any new development is going to be available, let's say, to others."
Mr. Zinke would not discuss Ready Pac's salad washing or drying process. "It's a very slim-margin business," he said. "So you hang closely on your points of difference that give you a competitive edge."
Almost none of the technology now used in the industry existed 15 years ago. Mr. Goodman and his wife, Myra Goodman, the founders of Earthbound Farm, started growing lettuce in their backyard in the 1980's. Last year the business, which specializes in baby organic lettuce, had sales of more than $200 million.
The Goodmans developed much of their machinery out of necessity a salad spinner, for example, that dries smaller batches of lettuce at lower speeds, causing less damage to the leaves. Machines like it are now widely used in the industry.
In Earthbound's new 115,000-square-foot plant in Yuma, the water flumes have swirling jets to keep the delicate leaves from clumping. The temperature throughout the plant is controlled by a master computer. Charles Sweat, the chief operating officer, travels by company jet between here and the summer plant in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and he can adjust the temperatures by remote control on his laptop.
Once the lettuce is bagged, it is sent off in refrigerated semitrailers to stores around the country. Company officials can only hope that the cooling units on the trucks work well and that the markets store the salad in a cool place.
Fresh Express, which deals mostly in head lettuce that is cut and put into bags, has processing plants around the country, so its workers can cut the heads into bite-size pieces closer to their destination, increasing shelf life. Other companies, including Ready Pac, simply have to hurry to get lettuce on the road.
One of the most important advances in keeping baby and cut lettuce crisp from the time it is packed on the West Coast until it arrives on the East Coast was the development of a new bag to pack it in.
"We had a breakthrough in 1989 that allowed us to take it national," said Robin Sprague, a spokeswoman for Fresh Express, one of the companies that began using the process. The packaging, a plastic film that her company calls "modified atmosphere packaging," gives the cut lettuce a longer shelf life by slowing the rate of decay.
At nearly the same time, Ready Pac came up with two more innovations: a system for washing the lettuce three times and a "pillow pack," a bag that is inflated with extra nitrogen to protect the leaves from bruising during shipping.
Organic lettuce is still just about 4 percent, of a giant industry whose change and growth is rippling through other businesses. "What we're talking about," said Ken Hodge, the communications director for the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, "is a phenomenon that has cut across the whole produce industry." Freshly cut fruits are expected to be the next big thing.
Still, salad makers are fighting to take their industry to a new level. They are busy reducing the amount of salad that clumps in the machine. They are improving the tatsoi's texture, and the time it takes lettuce to go from the Arizona field to a dinner table in Bangor, Me.
"This business is really about performing every day," said Mr. Goodman of Earthbound Farm. "So that means having the best quality every day and innovating every day. So hopefully, we're on to our next innovation while our competition is figuring out our last one."