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Quality sells…

By Jan Lievens, senior consultant, Applied Postharvest Technologies

As you probably know, our farmers, and many other farmers around the world, grow the best possible product on their vines, in their orchards, and in their fields.

And you’d better believe they do an exceptional job in doing so. But, as stated before, that is 95% of the job done. The last 5% is getting that near-perfect product to the end users worldwide, and also that the 5% gives the farmers 99% of their income!

One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore, is that produce does move slower, and quality (meaning a good quality shelf life) is getting the prime spot in the factors of importance for end users.

More and more supermarkets overseas are getting very picky on which PUC codes they will accept on their shelves. This year a very prominent UK-based supermarket simply dropped the number of accepted PUC farms drastically. All farms/packhouses have a unique ‘PUC’ code or Packhouse Unique Code to trace where the produce comes from.

Furthermore, to facilitate traceability for food safety, quality, sanitary and phytosanitary reasons, all product containers destined for sale on the local as well as export market must be marked with a Food Business Operator code (FBO code) in addition to the name and address of the producer, exporter or owner of the carton.

Recently, I was invited to a meeting on postharvest technologies, and the first question I was asked after the usual introductory round was an interesting one: “You are the postharvest specialist, what do we do wrong after harvesting?”

And that is an interesting one.

The well-known idiom ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’, has a literal meaning, although the ‘weakest link’ referred to is figurative, and usually applies to a person or technical feature rather than the link of an actual chain. In this case of course its the technical issues.

The question posed is very straight forward and simple, but is not so simple to answer. It includes factors in handling the product from the moment you pick, right up until the produce gets delivered on the other side of the world (in the case of exports) or local delivery for inland deliveries.

In that trajectory, there are many links that need attention and must be strictly implemented without fooling each other. Figure 1 gives you a better idea.

Figure 1: 10 points to consider along the entire cold chain to ensure quality. Supplied by Hennie Basson

Figure 1: 10 points to consider along the entire cold chain to ensure quality. Supplied by Hennie Basson

In the process, there are many factors that play a role, and it would take me far too long to get into detail in this article on each item individually. But the key takeaways here are two issues:

  • Attention to detail; and
  • Measure it and you can manage it.

One thing I have learned over the years is that all too often, people want to take short cuts, and, in the process, bamboozle themselves.

“What do we do wrong?”

Well one thing you do right is growing the near-perfect product – it is that simple. But that same product deserves to be handled correctly after you harvest it. When you want to go into detail, I will gladly advise you on where the pitfalls are. Unfortunately, there are many.

It is however absolutely 100% possible that, when you grow the perfect product, you can get it in the best possible condition – no matter where the end destination may be.

Your future survival depends on this as quality and fresh-looking produce sells and supermarkets worldwide will get more and more selective on who will be ‘allowed’ to supply them the quality their customers are looking for.

Give attention to the last 5% of your process and you will eventually win the complete race in getting your product where you want it: in front of the consumer who will gladly pay money for quality and that does not matter where in the world!

Preserving quality after harvest does not come by chance. The pressure is now on!

About Jan Lievens

Jan Lievens, born in Belgium, is a graduate civil engineering(B) and international senior consultant for engineered applied postharvest technology at UTE South Africa. With over 20 years of experience in this field, he is widely regarded as a specialist in the fruit-, vegetable- and flower industry with regards to humidity, airborne bacteria and ethylene removal, both locally and internationally. Furthermore, he also designed airflow-friendly packaging systems for the industry with proven results.