How do supermarkets call nine-month old apples ‘fresh’?

I was listening to the radio last week as someone from Choice Magazine was campaigning against the misuse of “fresh” when applied to fruit and vegetables sold in supermarkets. Her concern is that some fruit and vegetables are stored for up to nine months and are still sold as “fresh” by Australian supermarkets.

There is nothing wrong with the food (apart from some reduction in vitamins and nutrient). However, can it really be labelled “fresh” when it has been stored for a significant time and perhaps also treated with hormones to ripen? This question is the subject of an on-going debate between consumer groups and the food industry all over the world.

How they keep fruit and vegetables “fresh”

apples blueFruit and vegetables can have their lives significantly prolonged by modern food technology. They can be transported long distances allowing us to buy almost any kind of produce from anywhere in the world all year round. It is a large and lucrative business, for example, 16.8 million tonnes of bananas were transported in 2006 with an estimated value of $US 5.8 billion.

The main method for food preservation is refrigeration. A piece of fruit at 10° C will ripen half as slowly as the same fruit at 20° C. Another process used in conjunction with refrigeration is to use ethylene gas, a natural plant hormone, to artificially ripen fruit ready for sale.

Apples, for instance, store well and are sometimes kept for more than a year after harvest by some supermarkets. An investigation in 2008 by the Sydney paper, The Sun Herald, found that apples in Woolworths were 10 months old and contained excessive levels of ethylene.

However, this mass production and mass transportation of fruit and vegetables comes at a cost. While we benefit from the ready availability of non-seasonal produce and cheap overseas imports we are losing an understanding of real “fresh” food.

Word origins

The word “fresh” in modern English, has two ancestors, the Old English word, fersc, meaning not salty, pure, eager, sweet, and the Old French word, fresche, meaning new or recent. It equivalents in German Frisch, and in Italian and Spanish, fresco (we use al fresco to mean to dine in the fresh air). Therefore it takes it’s meaning from a combination of pure and new.

The dictionary meaning

apples redAs an adjective it is used in many contexts. The many uses give it quite nuanced meanings depending on what it is describing. Because we have to assess these meanings I have listed most of them here with an example of the usage:

  1. New to one’s experience, not encountered before: fresh evidence
  2. Novel; different, original: a fresh idea
  3. Recently produced, or harvested; not stale or spoiled: fresh bread
  4. Not preserved, as by canning, smoking, or freezing: fresh vegetables
  5. Not saline or salty: fresh water
  6. Not yet used or soiled; clean: a fresh sheet of paper
  7. Free from impurity or pollution, pure: fresh air
  8. Bright and clear, not dull or faded: a fresh memory
  9. Having the appearance of youth, healthy: a fresh complexion
  10. Untried; youthful; inexperienced: fresh recruits
  11. Having just arrived; straight, latest: fashions fresh from Paris
  12. Revived or reinvigorated; refreshed: fresh as a daisy
  13. Fairly strong; brisk: a fresh wind

Most of these meanings combine aspects of purity and newness. The two ideas are closely related—something that is new is likely to be pure and untainted. When we use it to describe bread it is newly made. When we talk about fresh water it is pure in that it is not tainted by salt.

The official meaning

apples yellowA report by the UK Food Standards Agency recognises the difficulties of a definition:

The description “fresh” can be helpful to consumers where it differentiates produce that is sold within a short time after production or harvesting. However, modern distribution and storage methods can significantly increase the time period before there is loss of quality for a product, and it has become increasingly difficult to decide when the term ”fresh” is being used legitimately.

Their definition used for fruit and vegetables is consistent with most developed countries:

The term “fresh” is now used generically to indicate that fruit and vegetables have not been processed (e.g. canned, pickled, preserved or frozen), rather than that they have been recently harvested. This is acceptable provided it is not used in such a way as to imply the product has been recently harvested (e.g. “fresh from the farm”; “freshly picked”).

So are they fresh?

fresh apples greenThe excerpts above from the UK Food Standards Agency report have given the game away. Suggesting that food is fresh because it is unprocessed may be acceptable to bureaucrats and the food industry but it doesn’t work for consumers.

Bread is a manufactured food that is defined as fresh because it is recently produced (supposedly). Fruit and vegetables are defined as fresh because they are non-processed foods even although they are not recently produced or harvested.

Claiming to sell fresh bread, fruit and vegetables requires that the word is used in two different senses, one of which is artificial. Real fresh fruit and vegetables should be both non-processed as well as recently harvested or produced. So I am right behind the lady from Choice Magazine.