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Is the industry walking on thin ice?

I know we do not often have ice forming in our waters in South Africa, but as I’m sure a lot of you have gone overseas, you more than likely have seen what ice can cause: mostly problems.

Doing nothing differently and expecting change is pure insanity. Image credit: Creative Commons

Doing nothing differently and expecting change is pure insanity. Image credit: Creative Commons

Opinion article by Jan Lievens, postharvest specialist and director at Humiditas

The industry is walking on thin ice. For years now, there has not been enough proper detailed emphasis on getting a top-quality product (that you grow in top-condition) to their destination by maintaining a proper cold chain.

Let us be honest, South African farmers are known to be growing one of the best possible top-quality fruits in the world. Pure logic as we have a beautiful country with an abundance of fantastic climatological circumstances to do so.

Our farmers are therefore known worldwide to be top-quality growers – well most of them. Logical, because we have almost everything going for us to grow that quality product. But then…

The full 95% of your process is done almost perfectly if you mean well. Unfortunately, the last 5% of the process is often a disaster. That is from the moment you cut or pick your fruit from the mother plant, until you deliver the product to the end user. Then everything there depends on keeping the top-quality product in top-condition.

That is where the industry in general fails dismally in doing the correct things. They have made the same mistakes in the past already, but you could get away with short cuts most of the time as transit times were shorter.

Now, the transit times are suddenly getting much longer and by having this phenomenon, that will likely stay into the future, the industry gets caught with their pants down if the cold chain is not respected and kept throughout. The mistakes made in postharvest, even the slightest oversight anywhere in the cold chain, are unforgiven and punished severely.

The conditioning of your product can only be done by having an absolute near-perfect and controlled chain of events from harvest. That is nothing new, is it?

Surely one must have asked yourself this question plenty of times: “Why on earth do I grow my beautiful product on the farm, looking absolutely brilliant in most cases, and get nothing but problems on the other side of the ocean?” Or did you never spare a second to think on this issue?

The creation of condensation inside your boxed product is the worst condition enemy that is self-generated or created by other people in the process. Marketers like to show the world pictures with water on your “fresh” fruit, but if you have water on your product during your postharvest treatments, it is simply beyond catastrophic.

In 1999, Cees Nijssen already mentioned it in an interview with The Cold Link. Oscar Salgado repeated it and still does so in his various worldwide presentations, and Professor Dr Luis Luchsinger put the industry’s nose in it again in 2015. Whether his approach was the right one for South Africa, I’ll gladly leave in the middle…

We have written about it, it’s in our presentations, this issue has been described in length in the past but has not been properly tackled for donkey years by the industry. Now producers are getting the ultimate reality in their face with serious fruit condition problems that cost dearly.

Although I obviously agree that the harbours and the worldwide trading conditions did contribute to these longer transit times, it would be very short-sighted to just go and look there exclusively for all the problems. Postharvest problems accumulate and are irreversible. And it starts at the pre-harvest stage, which must obviously be done right, but most of the problems start mainly after separating the fruit from its mother plant.

Time to really start shaking the tree and sort out the cold chain problems properly. Because, you know what? The industry, and even the guys that mean well and do deliver top-condition material, are now being painted with the same brush…

At this stage, I have bad news for you, it is not with a soft paint brush, it is with a harsh steel brush. The industry is now in danger of getting a worldwide label of “yeah, in the orchards and vineyards, they are world class, but when it arrives at destination it is stuffed.”

That, all too often, translates into bad prices and slow-moving product which, because of the bad postharvest cold chain treatment, just gets its “bad condition” state aggravated and pushes the product prices even more in a downward spiral.

The rumours that come out of the woodwork are frightening. With that, various sources indicate that “the farmers will not do anything and see what next year will bring”. Again, I have news for you, it will not change, it will give you even more headaches and possible bankruptcy if you keep on doing nothing in the hope that it will be better next year…

Einstein said it and it is true: doing nothing differently and expecting change is pure insanity.

Time to stand up as an industry and stop playing with fire, you are burnt already and if you keep on playing with fire, you will get burnt again. But the worst is that the fire injuries do not have a chance to heal. For all I know, it looks like most of you like to play with fire and get burnt badly. That is beyond painful.

If you are of the opinion that next year will be your best year and simply keep on doing as you are doing now, without applying an open mind to change things, good luck.

Houston, we have a problem, is maybe an article you must read carefully again. One can simply not keep on fooling around, the industry has been doing that for far too long.

Just remember, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. Maybe time to listen to people that are not just sitting behind their desks and creating theoretical models.

A full and detailed postharvest audit could be a start to get your postharvest processes evaluated and corrected.