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Fruitylife: Discover how fruit and vegetables reach our tables in top condition

Are the fruit and vegetables that we buy in the supermarket, from the grocers or in our neighbourhood market safe? When we buy them, do we know the process they've been through to reach the sales point? What do we really know about the analyses and quality controls performed on apples, pears, oranges, fennel and cauliflower we eat?

In order to get a clear picture of what controls are done, what agricultural technicians do and how important traceability labels are for fruit and vegetable products, we talked to the quality managers at companies in the Fruitylife "Fruit and vegetables, healthy and safe" project co-funded by the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policy and coordinated by Alimos - Alimenta la Salute, a cooperative formed of public bodies, farmers' unions and cooperatives in the agri-food sector, including some of the leading Italian producers, in the forefront of quality and certification systems. In particular, we listened to quality managers from Alegra, Apofruit Italia, Conor, Naturitalia and Orogel Fresco, the 5 companies involved in the Fruitylife program.


How are quality controls performed on fruit and vegetables? What parameters are in place to guarantee the product consumers put on their table is healthy?

"In an organised structure, a series of controls are performed throughout the fruit and vegetable production line, performed both in the field and in the warehouse by specialised technicians” - explained Fausto Gaiba, Quality Manager at Alegra SCA. "In the field, production site controls include analysing the soil and irrigation water, monitoring possible contamination from surrounding areas and all the cultivation methods used by the farmer," he continued. "In the warehouse, products are controlled on entry and throughout all the processing phases, from dividing them by size through to selection, packaging, labelling and finally shipping".

When are controls performed?

"The controls are performed throughout the cultivation cycle", explained Massimiliano Laghi, Quality Manager at Apofruit Italia, "although they are often more frequent around harvesting". "Among the controls performed," commented Cristiano Pilotto, Quality Manager at Naturitalia, "the ones designed to make sure fruit and vegetables are healthy are called "residual analyses", which are mainly done before harvesting in the field and to a lesser extent during processing. Residual analysis allows us to check that the product conforms to legal requirements, in particular in terms of any traces of phytosanitary products (used during the cultivation cycle and during storage in the refrigeration cells, when permitted by law)".


Who are agricultural technicians, and what do they do?

"Working without an agricultural technician would be like using the internet without an antivirus program," as Fausto Gaiba (Alegra) explains in a neat example. Agricultural technicians, who now play an essential role both for farmers and companies, perform some fundamental tasks: "they act as an incredibly important interface between the cooperative and the farmer," explained Massimiliano Laghi (Apofruit Italia), because their tasks include providing information, assistance and control. They are a key element in production health and quality controls, but also for transmitting information. Cristiano Pilotto (Naturitalia) commented that "agricultural technicians, as well as performing obligatory safety checks, also help us to achieve guaranteed product quality standards not only in terms of size, colour or the absence of defects, but also organoleptic characteristics, texture, firmness, sweetness and acidity". This is because "quality is just as important as safety", as Massimiliano Laghi (Apofruit Italia) emphasised: "if a product is low quality in the field, it's unlikely that it will improve in the warehouse. Therefore, quality is "made in the countryside", when farmers and agricultural technicians work side-by-side."


What does traceability mean?

Giuseppe Maldini, CEO of Orogel Fresco, defined traceability as "a process that allows us to trace a product's history back to its origin through a registration and identification system that runs back to the producer, and therefore the cultivation method and the dates when the product was harvested, collected, processed and packaged". As Marco Candini (Agribologna/Conor) explains, the traceability code is in fact "a unique number containing all the information on the product, and is shown on the label by law in the form of a lot number. The code indicates the farmer, the production field, the date of harvesting and the individual load unit delivered to the company, along with the number and type of analyses performed, and who selected, packaged and processed it." The number is used not only to intervene if necessary, but also to offer a guarantee to consumers, because, according to Giuseppe Maldini (Orogel Fresco): "traceability means maintaining personal responsibility, showing our intention not to back away from the responsibility for our products". The traceability code is found not only on pre-packaged fruit and vegetables, but also on the wooden/cardboard/plastic crates where you can pick individual products, as the label is also printed on the crate. Moreover, you can find special panels or boards where retailers can show labelling information alongside the price.

On you'll find a channel in the Fruitv section dedicated to the Fruitylife project for promoting safety and quality in fruit and vegetables in multimedia format; the contents available include video-interviews explaining where you can find the traceability codes and what they mean, the controls performed on fruit and vegetable products and how to recognise and buy quality products.

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