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When is a pear ripe?

July 20, 2005

How do you know when a piece of fruit is ripe? You squeeze it, right? Not any more. Now you can just look at the label.
A new label technology developed in New Zealand has made a quiet debut in grocery stores in Portland, OR, where it is being tested in packages of Anjou pears. The pears are sealed in a plastic shell, and along with them is a label featuring a large dot that changes color as the pears ripen. How it knows how to do this is the mystery, and the group that developed it — the Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand (HortResearch) — is keeping the details to itself.
The label technology, called ripeSense, was developed by two HortResearch scientists, Keith Sharrock and Ron Henzell. They worked with Jenkins Group, a New Zealand converter, to produce the labels. “It works by detecting aroma compounds given off by the fruit as it ripens, changing the label through a range of vibrant colors,” says Sharrock. The development period, he adds, was five years, and was funded largely by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
A main reason for developing ripeSense for pears, Sharrock adds, “is the difficulty shoppers have determining fruit ripeness. Pears, unlike apples, need to soften before they achieve their maximum flavor, and shoppers often squeeze and damage the fruit as they make their selection. The clamshell pack, molded to the shape of the pears, was developed to trap the aroma necessary for ripeSense to function. It also protects them from crushing and bruising, permitting retailers to sell tender juicy ripe fruit without waste.”
Jenkins Group, he says, was chosen “because it is a progressive New Zealand label manufacturing company with worldwide connections in produce labeling through being the Australasian agent of Sinclair International,” a major global fruit labeling concern.
Portland was selected as the test market site following a suggestion by the Pear Bureau Northwest. The city is in close proximity to the major Anjou pear growing and packing area near Hood River.
“We expect to find applications for aroma based quality sensors across a range of different fruits which are difficult to assess visually,” says Sharrock. “There are enough fruits in this category to keep us occupied with sensor label
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