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Quality Control challenges for blueberry exporters and retailersThe global blueberry market has grown 40% since 2012, and is projected to surpass 1.4 billion pounds in 2017. Today, blueberries are grown in both hemispheres to satisfy the year-round demand of top consumer markets for this fruit, including the US, the UK, mainland Western Europe, and China. As newer ambitious blueberry exporters emerge on the market (Peru, Mexico, and Morocco among them), well-established producers, such as Chile and especially Argentina, are starting to feel the squeeze. With the increasing competition, product quality remains paramount for companies that wish to survive and succeed in this consolidating and rapidly maturing market.
“Advances in logistics, storage, and packaging solutions have drastically increased the shelf life of soft fruit in the last few decades,”. says Ignacio Santibanez, General Manager of AI PIA “Still, in a world where produce can travel for thousands of miles from where it was picked, it can be challenging to ensure optimal quality and freshness at every stage from farm to consumer. Blueberries in particular are a very sensitive product, and require close monitoring every step of the way.”
During the 2016-2017 harvesting season, AI PIA inspected close to 100,000 samples off fresh blueberries for growers, exporters and importers. The inspections found that only 43% of the fruit could be categorized as “good” based on the applicable quality standards. The “excellent” quality category remained largely out of reach, with less than 1% of all blueberries inspected making the cut. Some 44% of fruit were classed as “fair,” while “poor” and “bad” quality accounted for 11% and 1.7%, respectively.
Ignacio of AI PIA outlined the following key challenges that must be considered where the quality of blueberries is concerned:
- Variable Harvesting Conditions
Blueberry harvest often coincides with periods of high heat and humidity – both factors that contribute to quick spoilage of freshly-harvested fruit. High temperatures during blueberry harvest season promote ripening, but overripe blueberries are very prone to damage. Wet berries, in turn, are highly susceptible to disease organisms. While blueberry producers strive to ensure optimal harvesting conditions, outdoor farms are highly weather-dependent, as was shown by the 2016-2017 harvesting season in the Southern Hemisphere, when warmer temperatures resulted in an early harvest, making for a difficult season for growers and exporters alike.
- The Need for Prompt and Effective Cooling
Among the blueberries inspected during the 2016-2017 harvest season, PIA had to categorize fruit as “fair” or lower in 24.3% of cases due to decay, and 16.3%, due to mold. The most likely reason behind mold and decay in soft fruit is insufficiently fast or effective post-harvest cooling. Warm, wet, or damaged blueberries create ideal conditions for decay organisms. Cooler temperatures dramatically decrease the rate of decay and correspondingly increase the blueberries’ shelf life and transportability.
- Long-Haul Logistics
An unbroken cold chain during transportation is crucial for preserving blueberry quality in transit. Last import season, according to AI PIA data, two-thirds of blueberry shipments to the US, the UK, China, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands travelled by sea, while roughly a quarter was shipped by plane. Air shipping allows growers to sell their produce within 48 hours of harvest, but it is not without risk. The whole shipment may be compromised if berries spend as little as 15 minutes sitting in the sun, which may happen while the truck navigates the tarmac. Another issue is that fresh produce is often shipped on passenger planes, which carries its own risks. If a passenger makes a last-minute decision to bring a dog, the temperature in the plane hold would be increased – necessary for the animal’s survival, but detrimental for the produce cargo.
- Packaging and Presentation
Unlike many other fruit, packaging options are rather limited for blueberries. They are usually field-packed, and any additional handling is discouraged, so their very first container must provide sufficient protection and ventilation, and be suitable at lower temperatures during transportation. Producers experiment with different materials (such as replacing plastic with biodegradable materials) and extra features (such as absorbing and cushioning fruit pads), but shape-wise, the clamshell remains the industry standard. While it meets the functional criteria, this packaging does not lend itself to many marketing tricks, and manufacturers have to rely on the visible product to do most of the selling. This underlines the importance of high quality and good visual presentation for blueberries, as consumers usually make the decision based solely on the fruit’s appearance.
“For a perishable product like blueberries, every step of the supply chain is riddled with vulnerabilities, and a single mistake can be costly,” says Ignacio Santibanez of AI PIA. “We check the fruit’s condition and temperature along the entire way between farm and supermarket shelf. As with most products, the final approval or rejection is up to the consumer – but by safeguarding quality at each critical stage, we do everything to tip the scales in our clients’ favor.”
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