Why the Red Delicious No Longer Is

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

Consider the fate of America's favorite apple. It emerged from an Iowa orchard in 1880 as a round, blushed yellow fruit of surpassing sweetness.

But like a figure in a TV makeover show, it was an apple that its handlers could not leave alone. They altered its shape. They made it firmer and more juicy. They made it so it could be stored in hermetically sealed warehouses for 12 months. Along the way, they changed its color and hence its name -- to Red Delicious.

The only problem was the American consumer, whose verdict on the made-over apple has become increasingly clear: Of the two words in the Red Delicious name, one can no longer be believed.

"They eventually went too far and ended up with apples the public didn't want to eat," said Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C.

In the 1980s heyday of the Red Delicious, it represented three-quarters of the harvest in Washington state, epicenter of the apple industry. By 2000, it made up less than half, and in 2003, the crop had shrunk to just 37 percent of the state's harvest of 103 million boxes. Red Delicious remains the single largest variety produced in the state, but others are ascending in market share as rapidly as Red Delicious is dropping, notably Fuji and Gala.

The reliance on Red Delicious helped push Washington's apple industry to the edge in the late 1990s and into this decade. Depressed prices for Red Delicious, weaker foreign markets and stiffer competition from abroad, including apple concentrate from China, contributed to major losses in the nation's apple industry, which mounted to $700 million in 2001, according to the U.S. Apple Association. The industry has recovered somewhat since then, in part because reduced harvests have buoyed prices.

Who's to blame for the decline of Red Delicious? Everyone, it seems. Consumers were drawn to the eye candy of brilliantly red apples, so supermarket chains paid more for them. Thus, breeders and nurseries patented and propagated the most rubied mutations, or "sports," that they could find, and growers bought them by the millions, knowing that these thick-skinned wonders also would store for ages.

"Did they do it because it has less flavor? Obviously not," said Eugene M. Kupferman, a post-harvest specialist at Washington State University's tree fruit research center in Wenatchee, Wash. "They did it because it has better legs and they are getting more money for it."

The Washington harvest begins in mid-August and runs to late October, and most apples sold through December are simply stored in refrigerated warehouses. Fruit shipped later in this cycle is kept in a more sophisticated environment called controlled-atmosphere storage -- airtight rooms where the temperatures are chilly, the humidity high and the oxygen levels reduced to a bare minimum to arrest aging. Last year's fruit will be sold through September, just as the new harvest is in full swing.

Storage apples must be picked before all their starches turn to sugar. Pick too late, and the apple turns mealy in the supermarket, but pick too soon, and the apple will never taste sweet. Growers test for optimum conditions, but today's popular strains of Red Delicious turn color two to three weeks before harvest, making it difficult for pickers to distinguish an apple that is ready from one that isn't.

Some strains "develop full red color in mid-August," said Stephen S. Miller, a research horticulturist for the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va. "Physiologically, that apple is still as green as grass."

The grower could deliver a better apple by harvesting a tree in two or three waves -- the outside fruit ripens earlier than fruit in the center of the tree. This is done for Galas and other premium varieties, but the prices for Red Delicious are so depressed that farmers can't afford that. "You would put yourself out of business," said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., a major grower in Wenatchee. In addition, the redder strains' thicker skins, found to be rich in antioxidants, taste bitter to many palates.

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