retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I have a love-hate relationship with avocados. I approach the first slice into the fruit’s pebbly textured skin with trepidation. Will it yield perfectly ripened, subtly flavored inner green flesh, or stringy, bruised, mottled-brown mush?

So the recent viral story out of Canada about controversial pre-packaged avocado halves immediately caught my attention, particularly since it followed an online brouhaha over pre-peeled oranges at Whole Foods.

The Calavo product for sale at Sobeys showcased an avocado sliced in half, pit removed, encased in plastic and cardboard. This prompted a post and photo from a “surprised and disappointed” Facebook user, who wrote: “Avocados are their own perfect, compostable, wrapping. Adding packaging to an avocado is strange to say the least. This is wasteful and I'm curious about the reasoning for Sobeys stocking avocado this way?”

(I also was struck by the freakishly-long shelf-life of the pre-packaged avocado and other avocado products treated with “ultra high pressure” for freshness. The Calavo website says the packaged avocado halves are to be used within 55 days of manufacture date, and consumed within 12 hours after opened. As much as I hate the disappointment of slicing open a mushy avocado, the realization that a pre-cut supposedly fresh product has been encased in plastic for almost two months is disturbing. I’d rather take the risk with the real thing and be disappointed.)

Sobeys responded to the concerns by saying that the $3.99 product was “developed for people who might be new to using avocados and for a little more convenience. It eliminates the guesswork when it comes to ripeness and any challenges if you are not familiar with peeling and seeding a fresh avocado. The packaging is there to keep the fresh wholesome appearance and quality of the avocado without it browning prior to consumption."

The majority of Facebook responses criticized the product. Said one: “I'm pretty sure that package would take longer to open than an actual avocado...that is so ridiculous and wasteful!”

A Sobeys’ spokesperson later told Global Newsthat the product was part of a pilot project in select Ontario stores, “and will be reviewed and re-evaluated to determine whether it will become part of our regular offering.”

This all sounded familiar. As reported here on MNB, when Whole Foods recently offered peeled oranges in plastic containers, the reaction also was fast and furious. The tweet that set off the contretemps on Twitter and Facebook read: “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn't need to waste so much plastic on them.” It was re-tweeted almost 108,000 times.

Whole Foods quickly said “definitely our mistake” and pulled the product. “We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.”

I completely understand concerns about extraneous plastic packaging threatening our environment. But I think there were a couple of salient points lost in the cacophony.

Whole Foods had said the oranges were meant to be convenient, which is about more than saving time, especially for people with arthritis or limited dexterity. In her blog, Crippled Scholar, Kim Sauder makes a powerful argument that dismissing such products as wasteful “completely ignores how pre-prepared food impacts people with disabilities ... I look at this and see an easier way to eat healthy food.”

Indeed, there were others (albeit a minority) who concurred that the pre-peeled ready-to-eat oranges were not radically different than sliced apples in plastic bags or other cut-up fruits and vegetables, and access to healthy food is worth the tradeoff.

Looking at these two scenarios, Sobeys might be best advised to not necessarily do what Whole Foods did when it responded to knee-jerk criticisms, but rather do a better job of explaining the rationale behind the product, preferably in the store where it matters. One person's waste could be another one's compelling need.

The lesson is an important one - that things rarely are as simple as they appear, and that what is anathema to one person might actually hold significant benefits to another.
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