Understanding Apple Grades

Apples seem to sell well during most any season, and of course, this is particularly true as we begin to enter into the early Autumn months which will soon be upon us. Even during the summertime when lush soft fruit abounds and U.S. grown apples have been in storage for months, this fruit remains quite popular. For your shoppers the choice of which apple to buy is determined primarily by which varieties they tend towards or which variety has the best price. As a wholesaler or retailer there are other considerations to keep in mind. Getting the finest quality fruit or best value into your store means that you must consider not only the varieties, flavor, and pressure of the fruit, but you must also choose a specific apple grade that will work best for your shoppers.

The grading system first appeared in 1976, established by the USDA as an effort to standardize apple sales and marketing. A few states, such as Washington, took the grading system a step further and defined even higher standards for fruit coming out of their own growing regions. To make it even more complicated, shippers within the same state make grade distinctions. As it turns out the grading system has in effect become a strong marketing tool for Washington state apples. On a scale, Washington Extra Fancy (WXF) is the highest grade, followed by Washington Fancy (WFCY) and then US Fancy (USF).

Some shippers will have as many as four grades of apples just within the Washington Extra Fancy category. According to the USDA the minimum standard for an apple to be sold as extra fancy is 66% color, and for fancy it is 40% color on the fruit. Every shipper can grade differently as long as they meet these minimum standards. As a result, if you lined up every WXF grade apple from every shipper in the state of Washington you would see a wide variance in color. Apples from the southern region (Yakima), for example, tend to be lighter than fruit from the northern area (Wenatchee/Chelan).
It's very important to understand that the apple grading system only refers to the appearance of the apple and has nothing to do with assessing the flavor of the fruit. Color is the most obvious visual criteria for grading apples, although shape and skin defects also play a role. An apple could have premium color, however, one small blemish on the skin or shape abnormality and the fruit is graded as fancy rather than extra fancy.

At the packing houses where the grading occurs, there are basically two different methods for sorting. One is the old-fashioned do it by eye method. On the other hand, most packing houses have now moved towards a more electronic approach of using a grading machine. One such machine examines each apple from 16 different camera angles in less than one second, and then grades the fruit by directing it into one of several water channels of like grades. The apples then float in to the appropriate grade packing area.

Although most of us tend towards the higher grade extra fancy apples, it's good to keep in mind that this selection does not always guarantee the best apple. How an apple eats and where the sugar levels are at remain of no interest to the grading system. On occasion, it's very possible that the best fruit at the best value may not always come from the highest graded apples. The best way to stay alert to the best fruit is to ensure that within your produce department you are tasting the fruit that you sell. It's easy to sell beautiful fruit a first time, however, it's easiest to make the sell a second and third time if it eats well! Once the fruit arrives at your store it's important that you do your own grading based on flavor.