Fickle fruit: How to get perfect bananas on the shelves

|     Violetta Kuhn     |

A BANANA’S last days are spent in rather dismal surroundings, stored in large, frigid warehouses without any sunlight before being trucked off to its final destination.

Under these conditions, the ubiquitous tropical fruit ripens to optimal colour – bright yellow with greenish tips – in locations like this one in the German town of Borna run by a large grocery chain.

The ripening chambers, with boxes of bananas stacked high, could easily be garages for trucks. Each chamber contains fruit worth thousands of dollars, says Stefan Worm, head of fruit for grocery chain Edeka’s north German operations.

On arrival, the still-green bananas are left in peace for a day, before the ripening process begins. A mixture of nitrogen and ethylene, a natural plant hormone, is pumped in.

Over the next two days, starch in the fruit is converted to sugar, during which time the ripening master has to keep a close eye on their progression, as not all bananas behave in the same way.

Few consumers are aware of the lengths that distributors go to ensure their fruit arrives in pristine condition
Germans consume much of the five million tonnes of bananas imported into the European Union

“With some the shoulders turn yellow first, with others the belly,” Worm says. Once colour level 3.5 out of seven has been reached – yellow-green – they are taken by truck to Edeka distribution centres, where they are expected to arrive in ideal condition.

German customers are choosy when it comes to their bananas.

“The German market is the most competitive in the world,” Worm says. Brown patches and uneven sizes are rejected by consumers.

Edeka is far from the only grocery chain that uses ripening chambers to ensure its bananas meet German customers’ exacting standards. The US fruit handler Dole also operates one in the state of Lower Saxony.

In Edeka’s premium segment, a so-called ‘hand’ of bananas should have four to seven ‘fingers’, while the minimum length along the back is 21 centimetres. Bananas generate about 10 per cent of sales in the fruit and vegetables category for the chain.

Prices in Germany are highly competitive, and Germans consume much of the five million tonnes of bananas imported into the European Union. The average household buys 16.64 kilogrammes of the fruit every year, with only apples being more popular.

Few consumers are aware of the lengths that distributors go to ensure their fruit arrives in pristine condition. On the plantations, the fruit is protected against insects by plastic foil. After being harvested, the stems of the bananas are carefully cut before they are immersed in water and then carefully packed in boxes for shipping.

“The bananas must not be shaken or bruised over the entire transport route,” says Andreas Bruegger of the German fruit traders association. If a ship is caught in a storm, for example, that will show up in how the fruit later ripens.

The fruit is kept at a constant 13.5 degrees Celcius before entering the ripening chambers. “Once they arrive, we have to take great care and work extremely quickly,” he says, as rain or frost during unloading immediately affects the quality.

It’s therefore no wonder that the employees in Borna coddle the yellow fruits. – Text & Photos by dpa