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It seems that I have been involved in comments and conversations regarding banana quality on several different occasions recently, from sources as diverse as family members to some well known commentators on the fresh produce and retail industries, and even one group involved in the supply and distribution of bananas destined for retail.
I am sure this is simply coincidence, but what has become clear from those conversations is that many people at different stages of the distribution chain find this most popular of fruit difficult to manage, difficult to distribute and store, and in the case of my family difficult to buy. Why is this? Well, there are a few issues when it comes to the banana supply chain which can cause difficulty.
There are a few simple points to make when it comes to banana quality, and the standards which we expect from our local store. The size is relatively simple, and there are enough different size grades being purchased and sold through the UK banana industry that there is a destination for fruit both at the larger and smaller end of the scale. The key quality characteristics are also pretty simple: They need to be free from the usual defects of physical damage, bruising, excessive scuffing to the skin and fruit that are loose from the bunch. We are not going to go into the food safety requirements here, but assume that they are being controlled.
The vast majority of fruit that you see on the shelf is likely to meet these requirements, but there are a couple of areas that my recent conversations have focussed on, where it is clearly a bit more of a challenge to maintain banana quality.
Depending upon what source you are reading, then you will know that the ideal temperature for bananas during distribution is going to be within the 12-15C range - some sources will give slightly different ranges, both a little higher and lower, but the general idea here is not to spark a debate about the absolutely perfect temperatures for storage of banana, but to identify that the range is clearly going to be very high when compared to your typical food distribution chain. This is where the problems start.
A normal distribution network is going to run at between 2-6C, which is designed to meet legal requirements for those food groups which need chill conditions, and also to meet the quality requirements of many other food groups. This is clearly too low for bananas, and will very quickly cause chill damage to the fruit. This can be identified by a grey discolouration to the skin as the cells break down. Some food networks can avoid this due to the volume of fruit which is being shipped, as clearly if you have many pallets of just one product going on to a vehicle it is a much simpler affair and you can adjust temperatures to match.
This is only empirical research, but I have always considered the quality of fruit at a large supermarket to be better than that at the convenience versions of the same organisation. If you are going to see chill damaged fruit at one of the major multiple groups, the odds are it will happen in the smaller formats, and it makes sense to me that this is because the volume of fruit going in to a larger format store enable the control of temperature to much more closely controlled.
Almost all food operators then outside of retail have the same issue: how to control banana temperature on single temperature vehicles and regional distribution points. I've seen bananas stored in shipping containers within warehouses, managers' offices, truck cabs next to the driver and in BBQ friendly cool boxes, all to try and be sure that they are not subjected to temperatures low enough to cause damage. Some of these methods have been more effective than others, and if I could just invent the perfect solution and take it into the Dragon's Den, I'd be a rich man! That said, the fact that more fruit makes it's way through the distribution chain in one piece than doesn't, suggests that these ad-hoc and often very inventive methods being implemented are usually effective.
There is also the issue of ripeness, and just what stage of ripeness you really want your fruit. For me, a banana would be a regular impulse buy, something to accompany my lunch, or to stave off the hunger pangs after a training ride (see the bike blog if you fancy donating to my Lands End/John O'Groats cycle later in the year) but of course you can't often buy ripe bananas in the supermarket, even in the bags which are sold as Ripe and Ready. Why is this? I suspect it is because fruit which are slightly more backward in ripeness are just simpler to distribute, and stand up a little more robustly to the rigours of a distribution chain which can involve 10 companies and just as many points of distribution even after arriving in the UK. It also gives store, both large and small, a little longer to sell the product before it starts to look a little sorry for itself. It also means that the banana quality can stand up to the biggest risk of all, US.
Why do we feel the need to pick at and poke at every bunch on the shelf before settling of the one which seems to be just about perfect? I can't answer that, but I can say that every time those bananas are picked up and put back down onto the shelf, they are being damaged. Possibly only in small ways, but certainly in ways which will eventually be visible, and will end up as those last 8-10 fruit on the shelf before it is cleared and replaced. The ones covered in black marks, with the splits going up the side, and those which are torn none too carefully from the bunch and then abandoned.
To conclude, there are a few simple reasons why it can be infuriating trying to buy a good quality banana, some of which are down to nature and others of which relate to the way in which bananas are distributed. As a third party visitor to many different supply chains, fresh produce suppliers and fresh produce distributors I can also say that there is a really significant effort going in to avoiding this damage. Then we the consumers come along and bruise them during our shopping anyway. That said, they are the most popular fruit on the market in the UK so those involved are clearly doing something right, and with the BBC reporting that we are collectively stuffing 231 bananas into our mouths every second, that does not look like changing anytime soon.
For more information on the specification of bananas, see our Fresh Produce Specification - Bananas