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Real Florida: Put out to pasteurization

The distinctive taste of fresh-squeezed orange juice is being lost in the age of government regulations.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published December 22, 2003

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[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
Thousands of oranges on conveyer belts move past employees at the Tropicana Products factory in Bradenton. The workers remove unwanted fruit and sort the oranges by size before the fruit moves to machines that extract the juice.

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When oranges arrive at the factory, the entire truck is tipped by a gravity system and the oranges pour out of the trailer. The oranges are then moved by conveyer belt for processing.
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Inside the processing plant, it’s a maze of pipes and tubes.
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Rows of machines extract the juice from oranges.
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The Tropicana headquarters and processing plant in Bradenton. Its 3,000 employees supply pasteurized, not-from-concentrate orange juice to the world.

CLEARWATER - Orange juice used to be a simple thing. Cut the orange in two. Twist each half against a reamer. Drain what comes out of the reamer into a glass.

Drink.

"Making orange juice was my first job," says Richard Miller, manager of Orange Blossom Groves. "I'd slice the orange and hand it to a lady who'd squeeze the juice into a dish pan. We'd pour the juice from the pan into jugs while people stood in line waiting."

That was 30 years ago. Orange Blossom, a market on U.S. 19, now turns out 100,000 gallons of fresh-squeezed a year. But selling fresh juice in the age of factory-produced concentrate and not-from-concentrate-pasteurized is complicated now.

Even at old-timey family businesses such as Orange Blossom, expensive spic-and-span juice machines do the work, overlooked by folks in white coats who keep track of every shipment of oranges and where they came from. Orange Blossom workers in turn are monitored by government inspectors who try to make sure every drop is safe to drink.

Drinking fresh-squeezed juice, or what experts call "raw juice," is actually quite safe. However, nothing is foolproof. In 1996, a baby died from E. coli poisoning after drinking contaminated apple juice in Colorado. In 1999, fresh-squeezed orange juice produced in Arizona was blamed for a salmonella outbreak in the Pacific Northwest.

While you are more likely to be bitten by a shark and struck by lightning as you trot bleeding down the beach than perish from drinking raw orange juice, nobody in the business takes chances. In Florida, fresh-squeezed entrepreneurs have to invest in state-of-the-art machinery and spend hours sweeping, swabbing and scrubbing. Employees follow strict government guidelines, about 14 pages worth, to do what Richard Miller used to do decades ago with a sharp knife and plastic reamer in five minutes.

"It's getting harder and harder to sell fresh-squeezed orange juice," Miller says. "Every year there's a lot more testing and rules and paperwork than the year before."

Florida may be the citrus capital of America, but from-the-tree-to-your-glass juice is a vanishing species unless you make your own at home. Florida produces millions of gallons of orange juice each year, but 98 percent is pasteurized, the process that kills the germs, extends shelf life, keeps bureaucrats at bay and seems to eliminate at least a little of the freshness.

The pasteurized product is certainly tasty - to most Americans, pasteurized, out-of-a-carton or out-of-the-can supermarket-OJ is the definitive orange juice - but discriminating palates can tell the difference.

"Even in Florida, most people don't know, or don't even remember, what real orange juice tastes like anymore," says Ben Tillett, whose family has sold oranges and fresh-squeezed juice at Manatee County's tiny Citrus Place for eight decades.

Twice a week Tillett, his wife Vera, and a couple of family employees crank up their juice machine and feed it one orange at a time. On a good day, they make 125 gallons at their Terra Ceia business. Afterward, following health and safety guidelines, they spend hours cleaning the machine, cleaning the kitchen and preparing for tomorrow's batch.

Unlike factory juice, which is processed so it always tastes the same, Tillett juice varies every time. "It always depends on what's in season," he says. In October, the Tilletts blend bland navel oranges with sweeter robles. In December, they add tangelos to the mix. In January, they start tossing temples into their juicer. Finally come the sweet valencias.

"A lot of us won't drink anything but fresh-squeezed," says Tillett, born on Terra Ceia Island in 1932. "It's like me with fish. I grew up eating fish I had caught myself. So I rarely order fish in a restaurant because I know what fresh fish tastes like. If you haven't eaten just-out-of-the-water fish, it probably won't matter what the restaurant serves you."

Secret ingredient

Folks sometimes wonder why Bill Mixon's oranges taste so sweet. He usually tells them about Manatee County's good soil, ample rain and cool nights. But old customers know his secret is gospel music. At 74, Mixon still works in his groves as much as possible. If you listen hard, you can hear him singing to his trees above the roar of his John Deere.

In the sweet by and by

We shall meet on that beautiful shore

In the sweet by and by

We shall meet on that beautiful shore

His favorite hymn was composed in the 19th century, which suits an old orange man fine. "I sing from blossom to maturity," he tells people. He was 10 when his daddy started Mixon Fruit Farms, and his childhood memories include squeezing oranges into a pail and selling the juice - all 5 gallons of it - at the family's roadside stand on 26th Avenue E.

The largest citrus retailer in Manatee, Mixon Fruit Farms sells 500 gallons a day. "I'm still singing," Mixon likes to joke. "I yodel all the way to the bank."

But one cherished tradition has ended. While his juice remains savory, he pasteurizes now. He heats it up just hot enough to kill the bacteria, then cools it to preserve as much of the fresh taste as possible.

"It's easier this way," he says. "All the regulations were putting the small fresh-squeezed juicers out of the market. I decided not to fight anymore."

On a cool December afternoon before Christmas, the Mixon store, a veritable citrus supermarket, bulges with mostly elderly consumers. They fill mesh bags with oranges, tangerines and seedless - has to be seedless - grapefruit. They buy orange candy and orange ice cream. All the while, Mixon's squeezing machines and pasteurizers struggle to keep up with the juice demand.

"It's still a very good product," Mixon says.

Concentrating on taste

Years ago, fresh-squeezed juice from Florida inevitably spoiled before it arrived at northern markets.

During the Depression, scientists in Orlando invented a process to put orange juice into a can while increasing shelf life. Unfortunately, the new product tasted more of the can than the orange. World War II, and the desire to provide U.S. soldiers with vitamin C, spurred another round of orange-juice science. But the new concentrated product tasted "like a glass of water with two teaspoons of sugar and one aspirin dissolved in it," wrote John McPhee in his book, Oranges.

Back to the drawing board. Improving the taste of juice concentrate became "Florida's equivalent of the Manhattan Project," according to University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. Orlando's Minute Maid is often credited with selling the first concentrated juice worthy of human consumption; by 1950, consumers from Maine to Washington could drink a decent glass of reconstituted orange juice, even in August.

Drive across the U.S. 41 bridge at the Manatee River and you will think Willy Wonka's orange-cake bakery is around the corner. But off in the distance is the source of the perfume, the smoke stacks from the huge Tropicana Products factory. Its 3,000 employees are in the process of supplying pasteurized, not-from-concentrate orange juice to the world.

In 1947, when Italian immigrant Anthony Rossi started the business in a little warehouse in Palmetto, his ambition was to supply New York restaurants with oranges and juice. Now Tropicana buys 25 percent of the oranges grown in Florida groves, about 5.5-billion pounds a year. Tropicana daily processes 65-million gallons of juice and sends railroad trains to the Northeast and to the Midwest at least five times a week. Tropicana's 500 refrigerated boxcars contain enough juice to fill 350 backyard swimming pools.

At 270 acres, the factory is nearly 10 times larger than Tropicana Field, the domed baseball stadium that dominates St. Petersburg's skyline. Factory machines never stop running, not even at night, not even on Christmas Day. During orange season, huge trucks, their trailers laden with oranges, line up in football-field sized lots and wait.

They dump their oranges onto conveyer belts; the conveyer belts transport oranges to washers and waxers and storage bins. Cullers cull; inspectors inspect, more cullers do another round of culling. Conveyers carry remaining oranges to new machines that wash, pierce, slice and squeeze, operated by workers who wear hair nets, beard nets, protective glasses and earplugs the color of grapefruit. In another factory warehouse, clattering machines stamp out cartons, jugs and bottles by the millions. As pasteurizers pasteurize, machines spit juice into the containers. A new line of conveyers moves containers into cold-storage warehouses, refrigerated trucks and 60-car railroad trains parked on the grounds. Tropicana even has its own train repair crews to fix railroad cars.

Quality in every carton

Karl Hoppe tries to leave nothing to chance. At 44, he is a senior manager in the global quality and food safety department at Tropicana. He works in a building apart from the factory, but everything that happens in the factory can happen in his building, too. It's where everything is tested, from making cartons to making orange juice. He even has a machine programmed to reproduce bumps and jolts along railroad tracks from Bradenton to New York. "We want to make sure our cartons are strong enough not to burst open," he says.

He is probably even more particular about the taste of orange juice. Tropicana's pasteurizing machines heat the juice to 205 degrees for five seconds, then cool it down almost instantly to 36 degrees. Those temperatures, Tropicana scientists have found, are just right. "If we heat up the juice too high, or too long, it can have a burnt-orange flavor," he says. "But if we don't heat it enough, you might leave a few germs."

He worries constantly about taste. Tropicana wants its orange juice to taste the same no matter where or when it is consumed. It blends hamlin, pineapple and valencia oranges for consistency. Then it analyzes more than 300 chemicals in the juice so it can re-create the same flavor every time.

Even that isn't good enough for Hoppe.

In 1998, Tropicana began training people to taste orange juice. Now the company has a dozen professional tasters who visit the plant three times a week and get paid about $10 an hour to drink orange juice.

They sit in isolation booths in a narrow hallway near the test kitchen. Through a wall opening, a technician pushes little cups of orange juice in front of them. They sip the juice like wine connoisseurs; swishing, sometimes swallowing, but often spitting it out before moving on to the next sample. They work only two hours at a time.

"That's about all your palate is good for," says Eunice LaCovacci. Like the other tasters, she is middle-aged or older. She forsakes smoking; cigarettes ruin taste buds. On test days, she avoids coffee. The night before, she avoids spicy foods.

She sips from a cup. Not bad. Another cup. Good too, but slightly different. The third cup tastes like the first cup. She types that fact into a computer.

"We never know what we're going to be tasting or why," she says. Sometimes they taste juice that is clearly past prime. Tropicana might be testing a juice for shelf life. Sometimes three juices taste exactly the same but are different shades. Some scientists believe a deeper color is more appealing to consumers than a pale shade.

"Every once in a while we get to taste raw orange juice as a comparison," tester Judith Warren says. "I grew up drinking Tang and then moved to Florida and discovered orange juice. My husband and I have trees in our back yard, navel and valencia. We squeeze our juice by hand; hand-squeezed is always better than machine-squeezed in my opinion. But the juice here is very tasty, too."

At the end of their shift, they gather in the tangelo room and eat Hershey's chocolate as a reward. They all joke about finding work in a chocolate tasting factory in their next lives.

"Actually, this is the best job I've ever had," says Norma Oldfield in a brassy New York accent. "I tell people I've had every job in the world except waiting on tables and lying on my back. I'll tell you, you can't beat getting paid to taste orange juice."

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727. His e-mail address is klink@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 19, 2003, 13:51:04]


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