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by Tom New
Having taken a little while to think about the last 15 years of fresh produce quality inspections that have passed through this office while I have been here, it occurs to me that there are only a finite number of contributing factors when I think about what really damages food within the distribution chain. This is especially true if I focus on a specific food category such as fresh produce, as I was doing this afternoon. It may warrant a separate entry to look at some different food types such as vacuum packed meat or dairy, but in terms of fruit and vegetables, if you are involved in the purchasing or distribution of fresh produce, I would estimate that controlling these 4 points would put you in control of 90% of your ‘in-distribution’ quality factors.
Food Quality Factor 1 – Time
This is, after all a perishable product. In fact, for some products it can prove extremely difficult to reduce the time in distribution to a period which is going to leave enough shelf life and remaining food quality to really get use out of the product. In these circumstances it is vital that the food distribution is set up in a way that will minimize extra time in distribution caused by incorrectly picked items as an example, or incorrectly rotated food picking in cases where stock is held in distribution centers.
Food Quality Factor 2 – Temperature
This may be the hardest element to control of all, as many organizations involved in large scale food purchasing and distribution are having to move a wide range of products in a single vehicle, which more often than not requires a single temperature. We have all had to put up with the quality impact on bananas when they are kept by a supplier in double figures Celsius to ripen at the right time for supply to the customer, then stored and distributed at three degrees to cater for those products which need low temperatures for food safety reasons, then kept out of the fridge at a retail or catering type of unit once they arrive. That change in temperature alone, aside from the effect of the lowest temperature, can be devastating.
On the other end of the scale, it can be equally difficult to maintain low temperatures during warm months during those multi-drop parts of food distribution. This entry is about food quality rather than food safety, so we won’t get stuck in the potential risks other than to food quality and shelf life expectations, but it is entirely possible for goods to encounter temperatures twenty Celsius for extended periods of what is expected to be a chilled distribution chain. Food quality will almost immediately begin to suffer under these circumstances.
Managing to control these two extremes will have a major impact on both visible food quality, such as the defects you can see on arrival at its final destination, and also on the invisible quality such as the keeping quality of what can be a very perishable food category.
Factor 3 – Handling and placement
This is the big human factor, and effective training and motivation at this stage can be invaluable. It is all too easy to pick and throw boxes around in distribution, causing crushing damage to lighter and more delicate products when they are placed under heavier items. However, a well organized picking and packing system, combined with a team who understand the basic needs of the product type they are managing can make the difference between your delivery of fresh produce being fresh and sound on arrival, or damaged to the point that you have to replace at significant cost through alternative suppliers.
All of these points are of course working from the starting premise that your product is entering your particular area of the food chain in excellent condition. Controlling food quality before that stage may be a good topic for another day!