New ODA audit verifies identity of Marionberries

From Oregon Department of Agriculture,

A new voluntary certification program requested by blackberry growers and processors, and developed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture is now protecting the premium reputation of the Marionberry. Audits performed by ODA’s Commodity Inspection Division in the berry fields this month and at the processing facilities later this summer will verify that a Marionberry is a Marionberry and not a lesser-esteemed blackberry cultivar passed off as a Marionberry.

“Customers want a Marionberry when they buy a Marionberry, and this official third-party verification guarantees that,” says Gary Neuschwander, District Manager of ODA’s Shipping Point Inspection Program in Salem. Neuschwander has conducted some of the field inspections himself that will help the industry account for all the Marionberries certified under the program. By the time this year’s inspections are completed, there could be as many as 100 fields certified.

There is nothing wrong with other types of Oregon blackberries, which can also be certified by the program. But a Marionberry is uniquely Oregon and widely regarded as the best flavored blackberry. The Marionberry commands a premium price and is specifically requested by customers- both industrial buyers and individual consumers. Oregon’s blackberry growers and processors fear the potential of someone using something other than genuine Marionberries when selling the product and offering it for less. To the naked eye, it is hard to tell the difference between a Marion and other blackberries. That’s why an identity preserved program was pursued by the industry. The certification has substance. Every point is checked- through an ODA audit and through a field inspection before the fruit has even ripened.

“If you are a Marionberry grower and you are putting out the effort to grow that berry, you want it to be exactly that,” says Dave Dunn of Willamette Valley Fruit Company and chair of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission. “You don’t want some other product coming in stealing your thunder. The only reason the other blackberries aren’t as popular is because the flavor profile of the Marionberry is the best. If you dilute the flavor profile, eventually you could lose your advantage of that premium berry. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Mark May of RainSweet, Inc.- a berry cooperative consisting of many growers of Marionberries- is also interested in protecting the premium fruit.

“Yields of Marionberries are not as high per acre as other berries,” says May. “So if the growers are going to produce that berry and get a fair return, they need a higher price per pound. With that higher price level for Marionberries, it creates an incentive to become more competitive by incorporating other berries into a blackberry blend, and calling it Marionberries.”

Willamette Valley Fruit and RainSweet are the two largest processors opting to certify their Marionberries, as well as other blackberries, through the identity preserved program designed by ODA. Having a third party verification tells any berry customers that what’s on the label is exactly what’s in the box.

“The bottom line is, we see it as truth in labeling,” says May. “It’s low cost, it’s voluntary, and it largely goes with the practices we already have in place. With a third party audit of our internal processes, we don’t have to change a thing from what we are already doing.”

May says RainSweet already has a way to track the fruit back to the field and they are segregating Marionberries in the first place. An ODA audit can verify that those practices and procedures are taking place.

Salem-area grower Byron LaFollette says the Marionberry is harder to grow. However, its sweet but tangy flavor commands a better price. It’s a commodity worth distinguishing from the others.

“We’re hoping this program will segregate the Marions from the rest of the blackberries,” he says. “We feel the Marionberries have a distinct taste and flavor. It’s important for the industry to segregate them.”

ODA inspectors have been trained to identify the Marionberry in the field and record the acreage. Visual cues include the roundness of the leaves compared to other blackberries. A certificate number will be assigned to that field which can be used by the packer, handler, or processor to trace back from delivery, if needed. Any container of product labeled as genuine Oregon Marionberry can be traceable to a certified field because of that certificate number. ODA can then do an audit of the packer, handler, or processor during the harvest season- which should begin by mid-July- to make sure the system in place is capable of the trace-back.

Users of the voluntary ODA program pay $75 per hour of inspection and verification. For supporters of the concept, letting customers know that the product is guaranteed to be true Marionberry is worth the price.

ODA inspectors provide a variety of other voluntary certification services, including a Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices certification that verifies measures taken to assure food safety. The blackberry industry is interested in attaining multiple certifications with a single site visit from ODA.

The Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission is hoping that a certified Marionberry product will help with an overall promotional campaign. The identity preserved program not only verifies it is a Marionberry, but confirms that it comes from Oregon. Branding the Marionberry is a natural- nearly all true Marionberries are grown in Oregon. The program also benefits other Oregon blackberries that might want to be part of a branding campaign. Certification that the product contains no blackberries from outside the state will help support the connection between Oregon and a great tasting berry.

“Through this third-party audit provided by ODA, we can guarantee it is only Oregon fruit and that it is 100 percent Oregon Marionberry,” says Dunn.

That guarantee to the buyer will now be as simple as looking for the ODA seal on the label or container.

For more information, contact Gary Neuschwander or Ron Pence at (503) 986-4620.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.