Controlled Atmospheric Storage (CA)

Eating crisp, juicy Washington apples year-round is possible due to controlled atmosphere storage. Known simply as "CA" in the industry, controlled atmosphere storage involves careful control of temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity.

CA storage got its start in England before World War II when farmers discovered their produce kept longer if stored in an airtight room. It was up to scientists to unravel the reasons for longer storage.

Apples take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide as starches in the flesh change to sugar. In the sealed rooms, this respiratory process reduced the oxygen, thus slowing the ripening process.

CA storage has come a long way since then, and researchers in Washington state have been among the leaders in this technology. CA was first used in the United States in the 1960s and Washington now has the largest capacity of CA storage of any growing region in the world.

The large, airtight CA rooms vary in size from 10,000 boxes to 100,000 boxes, depending on the volume of apples produced by the apple shipper and his marketing strategies.

CA storage is a non-chemical process. Oxygen levels in the sealed rooms are reduced, usually by the infusion of nitrogen gas, from the approximate 21 percent in the air we breathe to 1 percent or 2 percent. Temperatures are kept at a constant 32 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity is maintained at 95 percent and carbon dioxide levels are also controlled. Exact conditions in the rooms are set according to the apple variety. Researchers develop specific regimens for each variety to achieve the best quality. Computers help keep conditions constant.

Timing of harvest is critical to good storage results. Apples picked too early will not store well in CA nor will those that are past the proper maturity.

In mid-August, apple growers start testing the maturity of their apples to accurately predict when to harvest their crop to put in CA rooms so the apples are mature, but not too ripe. Firmness, skin color, seed color, sugar level and flesh chlorophyll are tested.

When the proper growing and harvesting techniques are used, many varieties of apples can store for 12 months or longer in CA. Most of these apples are shipped to market between January and September. Regular refrigerated storage is used for much of the fruit marketed in the fall and early winter months.

The CA rooms and CA operators are licensed and certified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Washington law places requirements on the length of time apples must remain in CA conditions to qualify as CA-certified. Then state inspectors check every lot of fruit as the lot comes off the packing line to make sure the apples meet maturity requirements, the same requirements the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses for apples being exported. Only then will the box be stamped with the warehouse number and the "CA" symbol.

Apples meeting these standards must be shipped within two weeks or be reinspected to meet the same requirements. If they don’t pass, the shipper must remove the CA designation from the box.

Red and Golden Delicious apples must also meet Washington state’s strict standards for firmness and appearance. These standards apply to all apples shipped under Washington Fancy and Extra Fancy grades. Washington has the highest concentration of CA storage of any growing region in the world.

Eastern Washington, where most of Washington’s apples are grown, has enough warehouse storage for 181 million boxes of fruit, according to a report done in 1997 by managers for the Washington State Department of Agriculture Plant Services Division. The storage capacity study shows that 67 percent of that space —enough for 121,008,000 boxes of apples — is CA storage.