Saturday, March 22, 2008

How Fresh is Fresh? (From farmer to family)

From farmer to family

As a general rule, most of our larger food chains either buy direct from farms and markets or use agents who buy on their behalf and distribute to their stores.

One exception to this is Woolworths, which buys nothing on the open market. All their fruit, vegetables and salads are grown for the group by selected farmers who follow specified growing programmes. The farmer delivers direct to one of two distribution centres (in the Cape and Transvaal), which operate 24 hours a day. Woolworths distributes to stores from that point and on average, produce is on the shelves the day after it is picked.

Most of it is transported in refrigerated trucks (with the exception of course of produce that must not be chilled - potatoes and bananas, for example, must not be refrigerated because they deteriorate). But all produce that requires it is refrigerated and the 'cold chain' remains unbroken from the time the produce leaves the distribution centre to the time it is unpacked onto the shelves. Produce is not treated with any synthetic preservatives after being harvested.

Another food store group moving into mass refrigeration of fresh produce is Pick 'n Pay. Their buying policy centres predominantly on the independent farmers, with 85% of produce coming direct from the farms and only 15% from the markets. It goes from either of these to a central distribution centre, then into the stores. So carrots picked this morning would be through to some stores by this afternoon, or tomorrow morning at the latest. The supermarket chain buys all its greens, carrots and so on fresh on a daily basis from the farms. In July 1990 Pick 'n Pay opened a new distribution centre in the Cape which is temperature-controlled at 12 °C internally. Their next step will be to refrigerate all their trucks and maintain the cold chain to stores especially vital during the long summer months.

Diet Start

Refrigeration may seem unnecessary if the vegetables are in fact reaching the stores so quickly - after all, a day between field and trolley doesn't sound like much. But in the summer months, average day temperatures can be between 26-28° and in an ordinary metal- sided truck, they can soar to over 30° - which creates a distinct danger of products becoming over-ripe or wilting. This is often the reason why we see tired-looking lettuces and other produce in stores - it's apparently more a case of wilting due to excessive daytime temperatures than having sat on a supermarket shelf for days. In fact, no-one seems to deny that cold-chain transportation is essential in a country which has a summer lasting six months and where long distances have to be travelled from distribution centres to stores.

Another factor to consider is that produce is becoming significantly more expensive. The growing cost to the farmer has increased enormously in the last few years and in order to recoup those prices from the consumer, the stores have to offer good quality in return. There has been a massive expansion in the consumption of fresh produce in the last few years and it looks set to continue growing.

Some chain stores - such as Pick 'n Pay and OK Bazaars - buy both direct and through an agent while many others, notably Checkers, buy everything through a supply company which in turn buys from farms or through the markets. Produce is transported in cooler trucks to central refrigerated depots in either Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban or Bloemfontein and from there out to the differentstores.

But what about the smaller food stores? The giants have sophisticated infrastructures to keep their shelves filled so how does the smaller retailer compete, and how does his produce rate by comparison? Surprisingly, many small country supermarkets compare very well. In agricultural areas a lot of produce is bought straight from the farms, which means theoretically it can be picked in the morning and in the store by the afternoon. What can't be bought locally is purchased at the municipal markets, usually through an agent. (This also applies to small shopkeepers in more urban areas.) In these instances, the foodstuff is usually a day old when it gets to market, is probably held another day by the agent while transportation is arranged, and may be in the local store on the third day.

However this is the 'best possible' scenario. Where some small stores come unstuck is that they may buy through an agent who delivers, say, twice weekly. If we take as an example a small store where the agent delivers on Tuesday and Friday, when you walk into that store

on the Thursday not only are you seeing produce that has been in-store for three days but you must also allow for the preceding few days between farmer, market and shop. This goes a long way to explaining why 'country fresh' is sometimes more of an ad-man's dream than a reality!

Of course, if freshness is your top priority, the many farmstalls dotted around the country are a good option. Their seasonal produce generally comes straight from the farm, and only out-of-season fruit and vegetables are bought from markets.

In summary, it seems we can assume that the cauliflower or beans or lettuce we buy today has taken an average of 2 days to make its journey from farmer to consumer. And the prime reason for differences in freshness rests not so much with the time-lag after harvest as with what happens to the crop once it is picked. Retailers who can offer cold-chain distribution, or who are small enough to be able to coordinate fast delivery from source to shop, are the ones who appear to be coming out best.

The one over-riding factor, of course, is the seasonality of the foodstuff - if you are buying, say, apples out of season, then it's commonsense to accept that they will have been held in cold storage for a prolonged

One question that often bothers consumers is why produce appears to be much fresher in one branch of a national chain than in another and why there are instances when some of the fruit and vegetables on display look 'tired' to say the least! Theoretically there should not be any difference because all the produce comes from a centralised depot, the same standard of produce goes out to all stores and the time factor is roughly the same in each case. Occasionally, however, there is a weak link in the chain and sometimes this weak link is the individual store manager.

Most stores have an in-store produce manager who is responsible not only for the ordering of stock but also for its handling, display and presentation and for the length of time it is left on the shelves before being replaced by fresh stock.

While research suggests that the majority of stores order only what they need for each day - thus ensuring that stocks are swiftly cleared ready for replenishment by a new delivery - in some instances where the in-store manager is inexperienced (or possibly inefficient) stocks may well be less than perfect. Over-ordering could result in produce staying on the shelf until it is past its prime and any canny marketer can tell you that that even if there is fresh produce to hand, it probably won't be put up for sale until the 'old' stock has been cleared. At the same time, it's important to realise that a carrot is not ready to be discarded just because its green top is wilted.

... andjoyohoxing