Pickle packers at home and abroad turn to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture to gauge the quality of their products and for advice on improving quality.
“Pickle manufacturers know that poor-quality products from any company would hurt the perception of every product from every company in the industry,” said Ron Buescher, food biochemist and interim head of the food science department for the Division of Agriculture. “To maintain high quality in the industry, the Pickle Product Evaluation Program was created and sponsored through Pickle Packers International, Inc., a professional industry association.”
The Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station has served as a third party to objectively evaluate pickled vegetable quality since 1980, Buescher said. Each year, as many as 18 companies send 14 different pickle products — from dill pickles to relish, peppers and sauerkraut — for quality evaluation. Most are U.S. companies, but some international companies also participate.
“This year we have products from the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands,” Buescher said. “Last year we had pickles from Japan and Turkey.”
The evaluation, conducted by researchers and students under the direction of Buescher and research specialist Cathy Hamilton, measures everything from packaging to flavor, from the number of pickles in a jar to the chemical content of additives in the packing brine.
Results of the evaluation are compiled and tabulated by the UA Agricultural Statistics Laboratory. Each participating company receives the complete results for all the products tested, but only its own product is identified. The report shows where the company's products are ranked among all the others.
“Executives of the companies can compare their scores to see how they rate in each evaluation category,” Buescher said. “Then they know where they stand in the industry and why they received their scoring.
“The companies can't use the data for marketing, but they do use it as a benchmark for improving their own products. The goal is to improve the product quality for the entire industry.”
Buescher said the program is unique in the food industry. “I'm not familiar with any other food where the entire industry cooperates with a third party to evaluate the quality of their products. I think the program's success can be seen in improvements in quality of pickle products and the industry's continued support.
“The program will be important until all pickles are perfect.”
Fred Miller is a science writer for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.