In Depth

An apple's year-long trip to the table

CBC News Calgary took a closer look at the journey of an apple from the orchard to the kitchen as part of an investigation into Canada's food system.
Examining different varieties of apples at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Institute in Summerland, B.C. (CBC)

An apple’s trip from the orchard to the grocery store in Canada can last up to a year.

CBC News Calgary took a closer look at the popular fruit as part of an investigation into Canada’s food system.

The journey of a brand new breed of apple, Salish, began in British Columbia, where the province’s apple industry is fighting hard not to be uprooted by its American competition — Washington growers who often underprice Canadian apples.

One way the industry fights back is through breeding special kinds of apples that consumers will want to buy. The Salish apple wasn’t necessarily bred to be extremely delicious, it was bred to handle storage well, which allows it to be sold for longer periods throughout the year.

Stored for months

After an apple is picked, it is sent to the BC Tree Fruits packing house in Kelowna, where it is put in a controlled atmosphere storage room.

"We pack this room completely full," said Hank Markgraph, field services manager.

"We close this very big door and we draw out all the oxygen and the CO2 out and we replace it with nitrogen gas. Once that's done, if you take a look at this door behind us, there's a little door behind the big door. If we need to check anything we have special trained cold storage operators, they can open the door, but they always have to wear masks because there is no oxygen in this room, they would suffocate."

CBC News Calgary examines Canada’s food system in our series "Food for Thought" in the wake of the largest beef recall in Canadian history centered around the XL Foods meat processing plant near Brooks, Alta.

Thursday: CBC News Calgary raises questions about salmonella poisoning in Canada. Why have some European countries eliminated the harmful bacteria but Canada continues to see thousands of cases each year?

Friday: CBC News Calgary checks out expiry dates. Are they just arbitrary or do you really need to pay attention to the dates on our food?

The apples hibernate, in a sense, and when they’re pulled out they wake up and are expected to be as fresh and crispy as when they went inside the room. Apples can be eaten up to a year after they are harvested if they are stored properly.

"What we do is take sub-samples and put them right in front of the door. Every month we take sub-samples of the sub-samples and test them for seven days at 70 degrees at as close to 100 per cent humidity as we can, and see how they react to that," said Markgraph.

The grocery stores send trucks out to pick up boxes of apples to bring back to the stores.

Bred for storage

The Salish apple was the result of decades of work at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Institute in Summerland, B.C.

Cheryl Hampson, the scientist who oversaw the final years of its development, stressed how the institute’s job is to only produce varieties that are better than or can replace something already on the market.

"The first step ... is choose the varieties of apples you want to use as parents. Varieties of apples are not species, they're all apples. They're like kinds of tulips or dogs. So you choose which parent you want to use."

The apples aren’t genetically modified — researchers pollinate the blossoms by hand and then collect the seeds from the resulting apples. 

"Those are the ones with that have a mixture of the DNA from the parents, that might have a chance of being what you are looking for."

Shoppers look, don't taste

Hampson said even though we might think we choose apples because of how they taste, that's not how we shop for them.

"When you're buying apples at the market, you don't get a chance to taste them before you buy. If it has cosmetic flaws or it's not as attractive as another apple and you might not buy it. And then when you take it home it has to have good texture. If it doesn't the flavour is irrelevant. If it has good texture, then you can go on to say you like the flavour or don't like the flavour."

The Salish apple was designed to keep well, because the packing and storage phase is crucial to the texture, appearance and taste of the fruit. This new variety of apple will be available to buy in Alberta sometime next year.