January 13, 2003
Division of Labor Department

More strides forward in the division of labor. Creative destruction in the industry that provides green non-slimy leaves to American households:


Salad in Sealed Bags Isn't So Simple, It Seems

The New York Times Sponsored by Starbucks

January 14, 2003

Salad in Sealed Bags Isn't So Simple, It Seems

By AMANDA HESSER

YUMA, 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."

Posted by DeLong at January 13, 2003 09:39 PM | Trackback

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I cheerfully and gratefully tip my hat to the market forces that compel bright, hard-working farmers, field laborers and packers to devote their lives to bringing us fresher, crisper salads. I love this country!

Posted by: Dave Roberts on January 13, 2003 10:40 PM

>devote their lives to bringing us fresher, crisper salads

You don't need them to have fresher, crisper salads. You need them to have fresher, crisper salads in a bag. I share your love of this country.

Posted by: Paul J Kelly on January 14, 2003 07:08 AM

"Bill Zinke, vice president for marketing at Ready Pac Produce of Irwindale, Calif...."

Back in 1981, Ready Pac Produce was located a short distance from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was there that I met one of its founders, the economist Wayne Gertmejian. As this simplified story says:

http://www.readypacproduce.com/about/

Ready Pac was started on a shoe-string. When I applied for a job there it was a $4 million a year company (over $300 million now).

When it quickly became apparent that I couldn't afford to go to work for Wayne, we spend a good part of the afternoon talking economics. Mostly I listened and learned how a roadside vegetable stand begun by a family of Armenian immigrants, became a multimillion dollar business. Along with many amusing stories about his Phd dissertation adviser, I learned how to build a business without much capital.

Wayne's business plan was a profit-sharing arrangement, that he knew would appeal only to a few eccentrics who could afford to forego current income: He showed me the filing cabinets filled with resumes from people he couldn't afford to hire. It was a lesson I later put into effect myself (with not anywhere near as much success, alas).

The thing that most astounded me was that it was clear that Wayne was a Peugeot-driving, So. Cal liberal, but he was extremely fond of that adviser I mentioned above; Milton Friedman.

When I pointed out the seeming contradiction to him, he said: "It's not necessary to agree with Friedman politically to recognize his brilliance as an economist". Honest guy, nice guy. I've never forgotten him though it's been over 20 years.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on January 14, 2003 08:11 AM

Thanks Patrick. Please do continue the story.

Posted by: on January 14, 2003 10:47 AM

Ever thought about the copyright consequences of copying an entire article? That is why NYT charges for its archive.

Posted by: Daoud Nagitar on January 14, 2003 11:12 AM

Ever thought about the copyright consequences of copying an entire article? That is why NYT charges for its archive.

Posted by: Daoud Nagitar on January 14, 2003 11:13 AM

I initially laughed at packaged salads. Fortunately, my significant other disagreed and started adding it to shopping cart. I am now totally converted over and estimate that this stuff saves around 75% of the normal labor required of putting together a nice salad. Cutting up the other ingredients turns out to take only a few minutes.

Posted by: David Thomson on January 14, 2003 11:17 AM

if I were an economist I'd rather eat some basispoints of productivity growth than this ersatz salad. How about about a bowl of misticanza ?

Posted by: Hans Suter on January 14, 2003 01:09 PM

Perhaps it is a sentimental attachment to the original "market". At any rate, nothing seems to get economists to gush about the virtues of the market like the sight of fresh fruit and vegetables. And nothing makes American economists get patriotic like the sight of the same fruit and veg in a well stocked, well lit grocery store.

Anyway, even though I am a regular purchaser of bagged pre-cut spinach, and even though I dislike cleaning lettuce as much as the next person, I do think there is slimy side to the grocery store leaf. Let's at least float it, if only to break the sunny mood.

The market for fruit and veg. seems to me a market for those other kind of lemons. We have to select our groceries with full knowledge of their appearance but with inherent uncertainty about their taste. The incentive to the producers is therefore not to produce produce that tastes good, but produce that looks good (deeper reds are desirable).

So we get (here in Canada too) shelf after shelf of shiny waxed apples, unnaturally clean potatoes, and so on. And now we get attempts to modify fruit and veg to look even better, even after a long truck ride. But there is a mismatch between the information on which we as consumers base our choice and what we really want, namely taste. Consequently, there is a mismatch of incentives for food producers, and grocery stores will tend to inspire more by their appearance on the shelf than by the end result at the dinner table.

So perhaps there is more than "gloden age" memories at work when people say strawberries used to be sweeter (although smaller) and carrots more tasty (but not as straight) and apples more strongly flavoured (but not as uniformly coloured). Certainly (more anecdotal evidence only) I have seen articles by European commentators awed by the display of North American groceries, and disappointed by the taste.

Posted by: Tom Slee on January 14, 2003 05:48 PM

Tom - Interesting comment.

There are however marvelous groceries that have a way of setting out fruit and vegetables that are stunningly tasty. What is hard is to find fine tasting fruit, vegetables, meats, and breads in the chain groceries. If you are in New York or San Francisco we could point you to moderately priced groceries that are Terrific....

Posted by: on January 15, 2003 12:58 PM

I grow strawberries from seeds from the wild and they really are not just sweeter but more strawberry-flavored than equally fresh commercially planted species. Non-foodies are equally impressed by the difference.

They are also small, and soft, and come ripe over the whole summer & fall instead of in a flush like most commercial species. They're about as transportable as whipped cream: best transported on the whipped cream, resulting in transports.

Er, sorry, i've fallen into such a transport. But it is true that markets haven't come close to providing us the best strawberries, even in season. Those who confuse the markets with God will remember "Doubtless God could produce a better berry but doubtless he never has."

Posted by: clew on January 15, 2003 02:25 PM

reason why strawberries aren't tastier: no brands

viticulture (aka wine) has confronted this problem, and vintners know that both size and number of grapes are inversely related to taste (they cut off branches of fruit to keep yields down in high quality vineyards)

the reason people pay for expensive wine (beyond fashion) is that there really is more flavour, and that flavour comes at a massive cost in lowered productivity of the farm and higher costs (you have to pay people to destroy crops...)

if you can figure out how to brand fruit and charge significant premium (talking more than 100%.. probably 3-400) then you can do something about flavour...

one of the main reasons why strawberries taste worse is that they have more water... you pay by the pound, farmers aim to increase the weight yield of the farm...

don't go screaming about how horrible the market is... if you can figure out how to convince people taht they want less strawberries (or none) that are dramatically more expensive, well then you deserve the millions you'll get...

btw there's a reason why people are biased towards uniform appearance: altered appearances are a great indicator of spoilage... spots on bananas, bruises on apples... for liberals you sure hate things that help the poor (like cheap and plentiful fruits and vegetables...)

Posted by: Libertarian Uber Alles on January 15, 2003 05:33 PM

In response to "Libertarian"...

"Hate", "screaming" "horrible"? I don't think I or anyone else said anything close to that. I even confessed to actually buying bagged spinahce. Anyway...

I'm not sure I agree that the cost of producing tastier food is the barrier, although your brand hypothesis is interesting. After all, it isn't cheap to get all those innovations working to improve appearance either. Instead, I think it is, as I said, a mismatch -- we generally have to buy based on appearance, so appearance is what will be optimized. Your point about strawberries actually backs up my argument, so thanks for that.

And I agree that there was a time that uniform appearance indicated basic health and quality of the fruit, but again the incentive guides producers to break that link by optimizing appearance regardless of health.

And do I hate cheap and plentiful fruit and veg? I don't think so. I even have some sympathy with the line from Douglas Coupland's "Girlfriend in a Coma" -- "Sometime around 1988 food got really good".

Posted by: Tom Slee on January 15, 2003 07:27 PM

It is theological with you, isn't it?

Pointing out something the markets have failed to provide for human delectation isn't "screaming about how horrible the market is". It's a fact. Heck, it might be a profit opportunity.

About the poor: every time I've lived in a poor neighborhood, there have been fewer grocery markets, with worse produce, and often more expensive than the ones in better neighborhoods. (I never did figure out why it should be more expensive.) Lack of fresh veg isn't a problem for a peasant with a plot, though. A foot on the ladder in a healthy industrial economy is certainly better than being a poor peasant, and often better than being a rich one, but "nutritious diet" isn't what Americans currently actually get out of it... possibly because we mostly don't want one, in which case there is a fine free-market argument for not worrying about it, but not one for claiming veg for the poor as a wild success of the American Way.

Supermarkets & produce rarer in poor neighborhoods

It might not be a lack of demand; subsidies for buying farmers' market produce may have led to somepermanent increases in demand and supply of produce

The US food market has been distorted by subsidies to lots of processing of centralized food and subsidies to development patterns that undercut local truck farming, so actually, a freer food market in the US would probably have a lot more veg. Plenty of people actually like intensive farming, despite the enormous labor and the jokes about winning the lottery but "won't give up the farm till the money runs out". It doesn't have to be as profitable as papershuffling to find willing farmers, it just needs to not actually bankrupt them.

And to do that, more people need to recognize what the market doesn't do and what we do that isn't the free market; not a strength of ideologues.

Posted by: clew on January 15, 2003 08:13 PM

Patrick,

It was there that I met one of its founders, the economist Wayne Gertmejian.

Actually, it's Gertmenian... About 1984, he left ReadyPac and went back to teaching full-time.

I've never forgotten him though it's been over 20 years.

Let's face it -- the man's pretty hard to forget. How do I know? I've worked with him on and off for about 10 years now...

Posted by: Nikolai Chuvakhin on January 16, 2003 01:12 AM
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