Ever notice how pears at the supermarket or corner store are often partially wrapped in tissue paper? You might think that's to protect the pears, and you'd be right. But the protection is more complicated than it seems at first glance, and that paper wrapping is more than just paper—it's often impregnated with chemicals.
First, some quick background: Pears have very delicate skins that are extremely susceptible to bruising and abrasion. They also have fairly long, stiff stems, which can cause problems when a bunch of pears are put together in a packing box, where the stem from one pear can puncture the skin of another. Pears are also vulnerable to an oxidation-driven condition called superficial scald, which is that brown, rust-like staining that you've probably seen. In addition, pears can be stricken by fungal pathogens and mold, which can spread from one pear to another during shipping and storage.
Or to put it another way, pears can be kind of a high-maintenance pain in the ass. "That's true," says Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Northwest Horticultural Council, an industry trade group. "But you know, it's the queen of fruits. You're willing to do a lot for the queen."
Willet says the individual wrapping of pears, which goes back at least a century, is intended to address all these problems. "Back in the early 1900s, pear packers started using wrapping paper treated with food-grade oil, which slowed down the rate of oxidation and reduced the superficial scald," he explains. "Later on, they discovered this antioxidant called ethoxyquin, which does a much better job." In addition to ethoxyquin, most pear wrapping these days contains copper, which helps stop the spread of gray mold. Some grocers remove the wrapping before displaying the pears for retail sale, but many leave it on.
So about those elements in the wrapping paper—are they commonly found in other parts of the produce world? "Copper is used quite a bit in pest control for a wide variety of crops," Willett says. "Ethoxyquin is only used on certain cultivars of pears." And are they safe? "All these materials are regulated by the EPA," Willett says. "They go through the same screening and review as anything else used in the growing process." Fair enough, but it's worth noting that ethoxyquin is somewhat controversial and is not approved for use in the European Union or Australia. If you're concerned about these additives, there's a simple way to avoid them: Buy organic pears, whose paper wrappers don't include ethoxyquin or copper.
Meanwhile, the machine that wraps all the pears must be pretty cool to see, right? Wrong—it's all done by hand. "It's an amazing thing to watch," says Cristie Mather, communications director for Pear Bureau Northwest, another trade group. "It's usually done by women, because they have smaller hands, which gives them the dexterity that's needed for the job." Yeah, or maybe it's one of those low-wage, dead-end jobs that have traditionally been filled by women. In any case, nobody contacted for this story could say how much this extra labor added to the price of a pear, but it's definitely an added step that doesn't apply to most other produce—something to think about the next time you reach for the queen of fruits.