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Queensland fruit processing companies are investigating automatic banana-peeling technology in a bid to compete with cheap overseas puree makers.

The move follows a study that estimated up to 60,000 tonnes of bananas destroyed in Australia each year were suitable for processing but discarded for cosmetic reasons, according to a report from the Sydney Morning Herald carried on FreshPlaza.com.

Four fruit processing companies have joined an industry and government-backed working group, which is looking at ways to salvage these blemished bananas for processing into purees.

Such purees can be used to make banana bread, muffins and juices but the substance is overwhelmingly imported from overseas where processing labour costs are much cheaper.

Queensland Primary Industries research scientist Kent Fanning said the working group, which had met three times, was seeking to develop a viable banana processing operation locally. Dr Fanning said hand-peeling the fruit was “incredibly labour-intensive” and the success of any local operation would depend on automating the process as much as possible.

“You can buy [banana puree] incredibly cheaply from central America and south-east Asia,” he told . “For Australian labour costs it just wouldn’t be competitive, so they [the working group] are looking at some best-practice processes around that improve productivity including automation of peeling.”

Dr Fanning would not name the four companies involved but said they were also looking at using an “enzyme process” to allow the use of green bananas that came straight from the packing shed. This would save time and money, he said. “To have to ripen thousands of bananas you’d need significant ripening room facilities and to attempt a process and get a reproducible product it’d probably be easier to enzymatically ripen a product,” he said.

Dr Fanning said his research suggested between 50,000 and 60,000 tonnes of bananas never made it to the shops each year because of minor skin blemishes but they would be “perfectly acceptable for processing”. These wasted bananas made up about 80 per cent of the crop that was rejected on the packing room floor, with only one in five discarded for non-cosmetic reasons, he said.

Australian Banana Growers’ Council president Cameron MacKay said he hoped more of the wasted bananas could be salvaged, as growers were currently bearing the costs but not receiving any return. Mr MacKay said Queenslanders would be shocked to find out how many bananas were discarded, often because they didn’t meet the cosmetic standards of retailers. “Everyone who comes to our packing sheds is amazed at how much gets thrown away,” he said.

MacKay said there were “big opportunities” to use home-grown banana products in foods and drinks, but acknowledged the concerns about extra labour costs. Queensland Primary Industries Minister Tim Mulherin said yesterday he hoped commercially viable options would get off the ground in the near future. “What we’ve got to look at is that we’ve got a high quality product,” he said. “Yes, we’ve got to compete in a global market. And that’s why the Queensland government’s investing in [research and development].”

Mulherin said he supported the research that was occurring but it would be up to the market to determine the when and if new projects could occur. In January, federal government frontbencher Tony Burke, who was then agriculture minister, blasted the supermarket chains for being too picky with their specifications for bananas. – Source: PlazaFresh.com

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