In the age of 24-hour supermarkets and strawberries in December, we’ve become disconnected from the reality of food. Grocery store shelves are always stocked, so we rarely stop to think about where food came from, how it was grown, and why it’s packaged the way it is. Take pears, for instance. They’re often wrapped in bits of tissue paper, but have you ever asked why? A recent investigation by Fast Co. Design revealed the complicated world of pear packing and shipping. After learning the truth about this paper packaging, you’ll want to avoid anything but organically grown pears in the future.
The long, strange story of why pears are packed in tissue paper starts with the delicate nature of the fruit itself. Pears have very thin skin coupled with long, stiff stems. Without careful packaging, pears collide during transit, stabbing and bruising each other in unattractive ways. “Pears are also vulnerable to an oxidation-driven condition called superficial scald, which is that brown, rust-like staining that you’ve probably seen,” writes Paul Lukas for Fast Co. They’re also particularly susceptible to fungal pathogens and mold, which tend to spread quickly through a case of pears jumbled together in close proximity.
So, in the interest of making a profit, pear growers figured out that a little packaging can go a long way toward protecting their wares. Back in the early 1900s, pear packers started wrapping the fruit in paper treated with food-grade oil. The oil slowed oxidation and reduced the chance for that nasty brown bruising (called superficial scald). But of course, as the chemical industry continued to grow, food-grade oil was soon replaced with something more controversial.
Now, that innocent looking paper wrapping contains a Monsanto-created pesticide called ethoxyquin, as well as copper, which helps stop the spread of gray mold. Although screened and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it’s worth noting that ethoxyquin is banned for use in the European Union or Australia.
This leads us to a strange conflict of interest. On one hand, food waste is out of control in developed countries. Supermarkets throw away staggering amounts of edible food simply because it’s not “attractive.” So any way to keep pears looking svelte until purchase time ensures that they’re eaten instead of trashed. On the other hand, there’s the health of the pear packers themselves. They’re almost always women (because their hands are smaller), and they come into direct contact with this chemical-laden paper every day. All because we’re afraid of a few bruises on our fruit.
Grossed out by this strange tale? The only way to avoid pesticide and metal on your pears in to buy organic.