Yes, he has lots of bananas

Chiquita's Pat Foster uses ethylene gas to tell the `picky little buggers' when to ripen

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May 02, 2006|By KNIGH RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI -- Pat Foster doesn't growbanana plants. He doesn't pick bananas. But he's responsible for whether the bananas you buy at the grocery store are an appetizing canary yellow or an unsavory lime green.

Foster's official title is Chiquita's director of ripening, but think of him as the Banana Gas Man. At his warehouse in Port Everglades, Fla., he puts the finishing touches on green bananas, jump-starting the ripening process by exposing them to ethylene gas in a careful balance of temperature, time and dosage.

To Foster, who has spent 40 of his 59 years working with bananas, ripening is an art. "You don't create a Picasso by painting by the numbers," said Foster, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica.

Foster's chemical wizardry is a critical, if little-known, step along bananas' path from the sprawling Latin American plantations to supermarket shelves.

Chiquita Brands International Inc. is one of five companies that dominate the world's banana trade; here in South Florida, it supplies Publix supermarkets. Port Everglades handles 10 percent of its American imports - 20,000 40-pound boxes a week.

Bananas are big business - Chiquita's sales alone hit $1.9 billion last year. And at times, the industry is the target of trade wars and campaigns over working conditions on plantations. A dispute with the European Union over banana tariffs drove Chiquita into a brief bankruptcy in 2002.

Foster's job is to focus on a smaller but age-old problem: The short shelf life of ripe bananas.

Because they rot fast, bananas are picked green and loaded into refrigerated cargo containers Upon arrival at Port Everglades two days later, they are loaded into a warehouse, warmed slightly, and exposed to ethylene, a natural gas that the fruit releases when ripening.

Foster's domain: How much gas "the picky little buggers" get, for how long and at what temperature.

Bananas bound for Publix grocery stores in Miami-Dade County, Fla., get the heaviest dose; the county's Hispanic customers are believed to shop more frequently, eating fruit quickly after it's bought.

Shoppers in Broward County are thought to shop less frequently, so they get yellow-green bananas.

Shipments to wholesalers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. get the smallest dose of gas.

"You can't just pick up a book and do this," said Alvaro Acevedo, Chiquita's Florida general manager.

That's because Foster's job is more complex than it sounds. Bananas show up in varying conditions, at different stages in the ripening process, needing different amounts of gas.

They are affected by hurricanes. Droughts. And in the spring, Semana Santa. The Holy Week that includes Good Friday and Easter is fervently celebrated throughout Latin America.

Before the holidays, workers in plantations may leave their posts early, Foster said, picking bananas too soon and too green. Or they pick them too late and too yellow upon returning.

Without a doubt, he said, it's his most difficult time of the year.

"We always have problems at Easter in the tropics," Foster said.

Extreme weather conditions also cause headaches.

Heavy rains during hurricane season can saturate and damage a banana plant, causing it to ripen early to spread its seed. The same occurs with drought conditions.

A batch of fast-ripening bananas placed in a cargo container can prompt green bananas to begin ripening prematurely.

It's the same principle as "one bad apple spoils the bunch." One rotten apple in a barrel -releasing large quantities of ethylene - causes its neighbors to ripen early.

"All of a sudden you'll have too high of a color," Foster said. "Other times you'll run into fruit that just won't ripen. That's what we call strong greens."

Though ethylene can be explosive when levels and temperatures rise, Foster says the gas is harmless. But if you walk into a recently used chamber and take a breath, "you'll get a little buzz. It's atomized alcohol."

And though it may seem unappetizing to eat "gassed" fruit, there is little choice: Even Chiquita's organic bananas are gassed.

"It sounds bad, doesn't it?" said Jeff Brecht, a University of Florida horticultural professor. "It's an ironic example of what's `chemical-free.' Ethylene is a chemical, but it's naturally produced."

Foster's first job was as a cadet on ships that transported refrigerated cargo, including bananas.

He later worked for a Miami company called Banana Supply before it was bought by Chiquita in the 1980s. As Chiquita's chief ripener, he has trained roughly 50 ripeners around the country.

Foster said his experience enables him to produce fruit that ripens evenly, turning from yellow-green to yellow just as a shopper buys them.

But picking bananas too early does have a cost: taste.

"You go to Jamaica and eat a mango off the tree, and it's heaven," Foster said. "The same goes as a banana off a tree. What we do just isn't the same."

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