Just like most of the rest of the world, South Africa has gone into lockdown to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This comes as the county is in the topfruit season and heading into peak citrus and avocado seasons.
Amid these restrictions the fruit must be harvested, packed and inspected before it is exported around the world.
PPCEB is a public entity which was established back in 1926 to oversee the export of perishable produce which includes equipment certification, cold chain management and the inspection of fresh produce. The organisation also checks food safety by conducting audits. There around 1500 activity points which need to be serviced across South Africa. They also conduct all orchard inspections for citrus black spot on citrus destined for the EU.
Lucien Jansen, CEO at PPECB admitted that it was a challenging time for the fruit industry.
“People have changed their schedules, so we have had to adapt to that and remain as flexible as possible so as not to block the chain and make sure things keep moving.
“We have had to make it possible for most of our staff to work from home, some of our offices are closed with only essential staff coming when it is necessary. Our inspectors who are out on the road doing the physical inspections are moving around quite a bit so we have made sure they have all the right equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitisers.”
“There was an alleged case of Covid‐19 at one of the packhouses, not one of our staff, but one of the packhouse staff, so that creates a lot of anxiety for everyone. We firstly had to withdraw our inspector from the packhouse and see what other arrangements could be made, we are trying to keep it business as usual but certainly is not business as usual."
PPECB has hundreds of inspectors and assessors out on the road moving around from site to site and they go from region to region for several months especially during citrus season. “People who travel for 8 hours in their cars need to sleep and in the past would have stayed in accommodation but obviously short stay accommodation is not available anymore, so they are having to take a nap in their cars in front of police stations to break the journey then travel the rest of the way to get to the place of work. We tell the guys not to just stop on the side of the road as you don’t know what to expect and it could be dangerous. It is very challenging for them and we really feel for them and admire their spirit, they are putting their heads down and getting on with the job, I am really proud of the guys for doing this.
“So far things are going well, we have asked that the inspectors engage with the packhouses directly and that there is enough flexibility so that if they need to visit more than once, they can do. The last thing we want to do is create a bottleneck, we need to make sure the product flows.”
Roadblocks are in place around the country so inspectors have been issued with an official PPECB letter with their name, ID number and personnel number which explains what the organisation does and that this person is required to move around, but according to Mr Jansen, this is not always accepted by police at road blocks and they have had situations where people have been detained for short periods.
“At the moment the ports seems to be running ok as far as we have heard, but the citrus season is just getting started, we will only see in May how they cope when the citrus season ramps up and we will also have avocados at that time too.
“We have national crisis meetings twice a week to make sure we are aware of what is happening and we will continue to provide a full service as we understand the importance of the roll that we play in the export industry and must do everything we can to make sure the produce still gets inspected.”