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OSU professor pursues fresh-pack pears

Extension Up to now, fresh pears haven't exactly been perceived as aconvenience food.

Shipped to market stone-hard, they require nearly a week's worth of ripening,but have an eating peak of only a day or two.

They're at their best cored and peeled, two messy, time-consuming choresthat can leave a less-than-dedicated pear eater reaching for the nearestapple.

But David Sugar may just change all that.

The Oregon State University horticulture professor is part of a teamworking on a project that could put peeled, sliced, ready-to-eat pears withinreach of impatient consumers ­ and sell a lot of Rogue Valley fruit,to boot.

We produce so many pears that we need as many outlets as possible,says Sugar, 48.

Fruit salad is one of the more likely uses, Sugar adds. It'sfor the person who says, `I want to make a fruit salad tonight.' Pears canbe a part of it.

That day is still a way off, says Sugar, who has spent the past 18 monthstrying to solve the two biggest barriers to fresh-sliced pear production:browning and deterioration.

We're trying to find out how long we can keep them, he says.

So far, Sugar, along with graduate student Xiaoling Dong and OSU foodscientist Ron Wrolstad, has managed to prevent browning and preserve texturefor about 30 days.

But when it comes to flavor, it's only good for about seven,says Sugar.

Part of the problem is that pears are so ­ well, perishable.

Whereas an apple is fairly firm and can be enjoyed that way, witha pear there's a narrow window when it is truly ripe, he says.

Determining the proper moment of maturity, then deciding how best totreat the fruit after slicing has consumed most of an $8,000 grant fromthe federal Winter Pear Control Committee.

The committee recently doubled the grant amount, which will allow Sugarand company to pursue the most promising leads. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)is a common anti-browning agent, but it kept the pears fresh only five toseven days.

A better substance is 4-hexylresorcinol ­ 4HR to thescientists ­ the compound used to keep fresh shrimp looking pink. 4HRdoes not yet have federal Food and Drug Administration approval for useon fruit, although processors are seeking it.

The best texture enhancer, so far, has been calcium lactate, which haskept the pears fresh and firm for 30 days. It has the added bonus of FDAapproval, Sugar says.

Flavor, however, is another matter, he says. Experiments will try toextend the fresh-sliced taste, but so far, a week is the best they can do.

Another worry is what Sugar calls keeping the cool chain:making sure the delicate pears stay chilled from manufacturer to consumer.

It has been an interesting project for Sugar, who's delving into productdevelopment for the first time.

Something of a pear purist himself, he continues to encourage peopleto keep store-bought pears until they reach ripeness.

But for those who don't have that kind of time to spend on fruit, thefresh-sliced pears may be an appealing option.

A niche might develop, rather than a whole market, Sugarsuggests.

And for Rogue Valley growers, who produce most of the world's Bosc pears,it could be a lucrative entry into the burgeoning convenience product market.Consumers already expect ­ and buy ­ bagged salads, ready-to-eatcarrots and other foods.

That would be good news for Northwest orchardists, whose premiere pearsrank below oranges, bananas and apples, and about even with grapefruit ona public popularity scale, says Dan Hull, executive vice president of theFruit Growers League of Jackson County.

If it would use some of the smaller fruit, it can get us a profitablemargin on those. It could move a lot of fruit, Hull says.

David Sugar is trying to find a way to package pears so they will be fresh and ready to eat. The Southern Oregon Experiment Station has its own pear orchards. - Photo by Bob Pennell</P