The prowess of pineapple

After suffering through an18-month harvesting shortfall in Thailand, pineapple growers are hoping for some respite throughout 2015.

pineapple sliced

The popularity of pineapple is hard to deny. In the past few years, this tropical fruit has been transformed from a snack or side-of-the-plate option into a go-to ingredient for grilling, shredding and sauces.

According to Costa Rica-based Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporter, pineapple exports increased by nearly 400 percent between 2002 and 2012. It’s also the top fruit choice among consumers for Dole Packaged Foods, the world’s top producer of pineapple, says Stuart McAllister, Dole Packaged Foods’ vice president of sales and marketing, foodservice, industrial, specialty.

Like other tropical fruits, the pineapple thrives in beach-like conditions: temperatures that range from 65 to 95 degrees and well-drained sandy loam soil. While pineapple plants can tolerate cool nights for short periods, prolonged cold weather retards growth, delays maturity and causes the fruit to be more acidic, McAllister says.

During the past 18 months, poor weather—a lack of consistent sunshine, daily tropical rain and longer periods of cooler weather—has stunted the pineapple harvest in Thailand, the principal production region in the world. The prolonged supply shortage, seen by many growers and producers as an aberration, means the volume of pineapple being grown in Thailand is at a 10-year low and an all-time sustained high cost.

For example, two Dole canneries in Thailand have been unable to run a full-day shift due to poor results in the field, McAllister says.

At the same time, pineapple growers in Hawaii, the Philippines and Indonesia are also experiencing less than ideal growing conditions while attempting to fill the gap left by the Thai shortage.

To compensate, Dole, which operates a 30,000-acre continuous farm in the Philippines, has been able to “toggle output,” McAllister says, and push more from this facility to compensate for the shortfall in Thailand. “Barring an El Niño or typhoon,” McAllister says. “We should be back to a more normalized supply in 2016.” 

Field management

As growers have pushed for higher yields, many have over-fertilized fields. This leads to high nitrate levels in crops, which can later cause detinning, when pineapples are canned, that produces a metallic taste in the fruit.

“Growers are over-fertilizing to force the maturity of fruit more quickly for harvesting to catch high market prices,” McAllister says.

To prevent over-fertilization and combat detinning, McAllister says Dole is paying growers incentives to grow fruit to full ripeness and maturity, with nitrate levels that are acceptable for canning. At the same time, he says the company is also testing nitrate levels upon delivery and rejecting fruit if it is too high in nitrate.

After the pineapple harvest is completed there’s also a six-month cycle when fields go fallow to prepare for the next growing season.

“We actually return the pineapple bush to the ground,” McAllister says. “It gets chopped up as part of a self-mulching process that replenishes nutrients in the soil.”

The perfect pick

For Honolulu-based Hawaii Pineapple Co., growing the perfect pineapple means using traditional methods of planting and harvesting pineapple by hand, and sorting, inspecting and packing jars by hand in the cannery.

In recent years, the company has developed a line of low-acid, super-sweet pineapple, known as Hawaiian Crown Sweet Gold Pineapple. Craig Bowden, president and co-owner of Hawaii Pineapple Co. and Hawaiian Crown says the goal is to allow consumers to experience the true flavor of field ripe pineapple, “the way pineapple is supposed to taste,” 

“While we don’t grow organic because it’s difficult to do here, we use as few chemicals as possible and pick the fruit only when ripe,” Bowden says. “We don’t go for large-size volume but for flavor.” 

Regardless of the type of pineapple an operator chooses, one thing is for sure: as consumers have become more health conscious, fruit is being added to foodservice menus, growing at a rate of 8 percent between 2011 and 2014, says Julia Gallo-Torres, food, drink and foodservice analyst for Chicago-based Mintel Research. Not surprisingly, pineapple is one of the four most popular fruits.

“Grilling pineapple has become a nice option for many operations because it holds up well,” Gallo-Torres says. “Pineapple adds a nice level of moisture and an element of surprise.”

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