On Saturday, a California-based fruit packing company announced a voluntary recall of white and yellow peaches, plums, and pluots after fruit tested positive for the bacteria listeria. As recalls go, Wawona Packing Co.’s has been efficient and straightforward. The company's website has a general press release, a highly detailed document outlining the testing regimen implemented since the contamination was first reported (no listeria has been found since facilities were shut down and sanitized), and photos of the packaged fruit that was distributed to Trader Joe’s, Costco, and other retailers. Should you be suffering from symptoms of listeriosis, such as fever and muscle ache, beware: The lines for the phone number Wawona provided may be a bit understaffed (I’m on hold as I type). But all in all, almost any level of information a concerned consumer might want to seek out has been made available.
What you might find strange, however, is the dates the recall applies to: fruit packed between June 1 and July 12. Shouldn’t seven-week-old fruit already be eaten or have rotted away? If you buy your stone fruit at the farmers market, then yes, definitely. But when your fruit passes through the hands of a packing company that distributes it to massive grocery chains, the “fresh” peach you buy at the store isn’t plucked from the bough just before you buy it.
The Wawona recall offers a peek inside the cold chain—the series of refrigerated trucks, trains, and storage facilities that can turn a product like orange juice into something so well suited to long-term storage that it's spawned a futures market.
A mature peach is not the soft, ripe peach that you go prodding around for at the grocery store. The still-firm fruit can be picked at a point when the sugars have developed enough that the fruit will taste like a peach when it’s allowed to ripen—the key here being when. A guide to harvesting and handling peaches from the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences explains that heat is the key ingredient in ripening. If peaches are kept cold—nearly freezing cold—the process can be delayed dramatically. Like close to seven weeks dramatically. “In general,” the University of Georgia paper reads, “a peach will ripen as much in a day at 70 degrees F as it will in a week at 32 degrees F.”
“Obviously,” it continues, “refrigeration is an effective way of slowing the rate of ripening.”
A 2012 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that peaches from the cultivar Royal Glory could be ripened over the course of three days at 68 F, after 40 days in cold storage, and still have “the highest total volatile emissions and the greatest consumer acceptance.” In other words, fruit still registered as being peach-like.
If you’ve ever encountered the scourge that is a cardboard-textured, scentless fruit that’s passed off as a peach in the dead of winter, you’ve experienced what happens when ripening is delayed too long. That piece of fruit, grown in the southern hemisphere, likely spent a longer amount of time in cold storage. The result is what’s known as a chilling injury called internal breakdown. “It manifests itself as fruit that are dry and have a mealy or woolly texture (mealiness or woolliness),” reads a study from the journal Postharvest Biology and Technology, “or hard textured fruit with no juice (leatheriness).” Or un-peach-like.
I was unable to reach Wawona for a comment on its cold-storage practices (I’m still on hold as I type this).
The company advises that if you purchased any yellow or white peaches, plums, or pluots that fall under the voluntary recall, you should either discard the fruit or return it. Do not eat it. As yet, there have been no reports of illnesses caused by the recalled fruit.