The Russian fresh produce market is dominated by retail chains who import directly. According to an independent quality control surveyor based in Saint-Petersburg, Russian supermarkets systematically exaggerate quality issues upon arrival of the containers and exporters could be losing money if they simply trust the retailers’ inspection methods.
Since the foundation of the company in 2018, Turovsky Survey organizes quality control services in Saint-Petersburg, Moscow and Novorossiysk, in Russia. CEO Anton Turovsky works with foreign exporters of fresh fruits and vegetables fresh fruits and vegetables, who ship directly to Russian retail chains, mostly by sea in reefers containers.
Turovsky observes that large Russian retail chains, such as Tander, X5, Lenta, Dixy and others, impose tough purchasing terms upon their foreign suppliers of fresh produce through their system of quality control. If the quality upon arrival in Russia is not good enough, Russian supermarkets may reject the whole shipment. “An average result at the quality control can be of dramatic consequences for the supplier, when the supermarket decides that goods cannot be accepted because of quality issues.”
Upon arrival of the container at the supermarket warehouse in Russia, quality controllers randomly pick sample boxes from each pallet, and classify fruits into four categories: class I, class II, non-standard, waste. “These 4 categories are commonly used by all supermarkets in Russia. Basically, ‘Class I’ is equivalent to what most professionals would regard as top fruit. ‘Class II’ is for defects that slightly affect the external appearance, without affecting the shelf life. ‘Non-standard’ is for defects that strongly impact the external appearance of the fruit and/or its shelf life, such as rough mechanical damage, significant coloration defects, significant shape defects or any signs that the fruit is ageing. This has been be determined by brown dots, dehydration, wilting and dull skin. Other defects can be mold, dust and remains of pesticides. ‘Waste’ is for severe evolutive defects, such as decay or diseases.”
The major flaw is the system itself, Turovsky states. It’s currently too easy to reject any container. “If the quality controller finds that the proportion of ‘waste’ or ‘non-standard’ exceeds acceptable levels, then supermarkets may decide to reject the container. Depending on each supermarket, tolerance levels are 3% or 5% of “waste”, and 10% or 15% of “non-standard. With this system, potentially every container can be rejected. It’s easy to find 3% of waste in any container of fresh produce, even when the quality is actually good.”
“If you ask me, don’t blindly rely on Russian supermarkets for quality inspections upon arrival. Retailers follow their own agenda. When consumer demand for a given product is getting lower, they instruct their quality control managers to find any possible defects to reject the cargo. Sending your own surveyor will protect you against such abuses and it will guarantee transparency. By spending one hundred dollars for a joint-survey, you can significantly reduce the amounts of claims,” says Turovsky.
He recommends that exporters who work directly with Russian supermarkets always send their representative to attend the opening of container. Joint-surveys are quality control inspections that both the buyer and the seller perform together, so both inspectors are present when the container is opened. “This way, you will understand the real level of expectation of your client, and you will be better protected against abusive claims. This is precisely what my company specializes into; we represent foreign suppliers at the opening of their container in St Petersburg, Moscow, Novorossiysk.”
According to Turovsky, another frequent concern of exporters is the corruption among controllers accepting import deliveries. He believes that bribing surveyors is not only unethical, it’s also inefficient. “In big retail chains, for import deliveries, bribes won’t get you very far. After the first quality control upon arrival, the fruits are dispatched further to several regional warehouses, where the quality is controlled again. There are too many controls and fines. If the quality is really bad, nobody will take the risk to accept the fruits.”
The most effective approach to joint-surveys is to be as transparent and as pleasant as possible, Turovsky says. Apart from referring to UNECE FFV international standards, he lets the surveyor of the supermarket observe existing product defects, without trying to hide them. “My objective is to come to a mutual understanding on how to classify these defects. Every small thing matters here; even the way you talk to the seller’s experts and quality control managers. It’s very important to get on well with all the inspection participants, if you want to turn the final result in your favor. When I am able to find a common language with inspectors, it makes a difference in survey results”.
He also states that many surveyors who work for supermarkets often lack experience and qualifications. “You would be surprised, but many quality control managers often hesitate about how to classify a particular defect. By default, they will naturally tend to classify a defect into the “waste” category, even when it isn’t, resulting in a bad outcome for the exporter. Our mission as a company is to prevent mistakes in the classification of defects, and in case of doubt, to influence the decision in our favor.”
Nobody can win them all though, and so in case of real quality problems, Turovsky Survey does its best to quickly get the information to the exporter: “I always try to inform my customer in real-time, especially when some difficulties take place. I immediately send photos of damaged or spoiled products during the inspection. The main idea is to provide instant feedback.”
For the future, Turovsky would like to develop connections with surveyors from other countries, and to become part of an international survey network. “We could share experiences and assist each other with orders. There’s always a need for reliable people everywhere.”