Have you ever wondered how our eating habits have changed over the last few years? And it’s not just about fast-food culture.
Even the produce we consume has changed drastically. Globalization has made the world a really smaller place, and what we consume every day does not have to be something that’s grown in our backyard. The “exotic” vegetables, as are popularly known, are those vegetables that are cultivated in a new land not native to the vegetable. For instance, vegetables such as broccoli, parsley, and cherry tomatoes, among others, are not native to India. The country imports their seeds and grows them in their own country replicating the favorable climate and weather conditions.
Moreover, these fruits and vegetables like avocado, dragon fruits, purple yam, kohlrabi, lettuce, broccoli, and ice cabbage are usually considered premium. They are exported to various parts of the world and have a wide consumer base. For instance, India has been growing baby radish in eastern hills, while American corn, broccoli, avocados among others have been added to the domestic growers’ backyards too. The effort is clearly two pronged – these premium veggies get more value to the farmer and also shortens the supply chain.
But, as with any commodity that changes too many hands, can degrade faster, and has a skewed supply-demand equation, fresh produce contamination, recalls of cabbage with e coli and other traceability concerns have started to crop up frequently for these farm fresh vegetables and fruits.
Before we see how the world is tackling traceability and food safety measures in premium fruits and vegetables, let us look at the market in detail.
The demand for exotics is estimated to be around INR 6500 cr in 2017 and has been growing at a CAGR of 25.7% since the last 5 years. It is expected to grow at a CAGR of 15% the next few years. Currently, there is a new internet sensation that has taken over the supermarket aisles. But, some continue to remain hot favorites across the world due to their nutritional value, versatility, and novelty.
Avocado, broccoli, lettuce, and ice cabbage are highly protein-rich and are favored by health-conscious customers across the world. Widely used in raw form in salad bars, and smoothies, these exotic vegetables and fruits are predominantly used in the HORECA sector by the international hotel chains, cafes, premium deli’s, quick service restaurants like McDonalds, Starbucks and more.
However, the nature of these fruits and vegetables is such that they have to be grown, packaged, and stored in some pretty stringent conditions to maintain their quality. Growing exotics need immense care due to high susceptibility towards pests and diseases as they are high value crops. In particular, these crops are best grown in controlled environments, i.e. protected cultivation. The entire supply chain from farm to fork needs to be very efficient to reduce wastage, maintain good quality and decrease time to market to fetch premium prices.
This requires large investments in developing infrastructure and technology, from making seeds available to developing post-harvest infrastructure like cold chain facilities. Further, the import of seeds is directly linked to increasing the cost of cultivation. The high investments involved in the cultivation and supply chain advancements in the field are currently posing challenges for their fast growth.
Leafy veggies are most susceptible to over spraying of pesticides such as kale and asparagus, which have been victims of food recall and traceability issues.
Let’s look at some of the common traceability issues encountered by producers, supermarkets, and consumers for these fruits and vegetables.
One of the major incidents that flagged the need for traceability in premium fruits and vegetables was the degradation of quality when they finally hit the shelves. Most of the time, they are produced centrally and then shipped to different parts of the world. This makes it harder to track the freshness at the supply end.
Native to Mexico and popularly grown in Southern California – Avocado is a notorious example of this scenario. Usually shipped off in perfect condition, Avocados are often found too ripe when they hit the shelves. Lack of traceability or batch labeling has proven to be a nightmare to understand where things go wrong.
Mexican Avocados have run into ethical and environmental issues as the avocado farms have been connected with cases of illegal logging, deforestation, and forced labor. Traceability solutions that monitor the cycle of harvest and bring in certifications for ethically and responsibly sourced avocados seem to be the only solution.
Little is spoken about the Indian counterpart- known as butter fruit. It grows abundantly in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra.
The biggest difference between the Indian and international variety is the fat content in the Avocado fruit. A few chefs have quoted that – “The more oil percentage in the fruit, the creamier its texture. Hass is popular because of its higher oil percentage—a good Hass will have above 18 percent of oil content—compared to the Indian Avocado, which is usually less than 12 per cent, but does not affect the palate so much when we mix it in salads and the Indian variety is more suited to experimentation as the flesh is firmer.”
Physical Quality parameters such as color, shape, texture are the most essential parameters for the F&V import sector. These are mostly checked and passed by food processing centers using Automated food quality inspection using computer vision to detect any variations in uniformities, usually for fruits with large scale operations including Californian Apples, Newzealand Kiwis etc.
Farm to table traceability is often rightly considered the only way to tackle food recall ability and the E-coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce. In 2017 and 2018, the American produce industry saw two outbreaks of E-coli in romaine lettuce. Recently, there has been a risk of potential listeria in Enoki Mushrooms. Sometime ago, strawberries experienced an outbreak. Most strawberries that are not organically grown (most are not), are laden with chemical residues from pesticide sprays used in the process of growing them. Hence, they are called dirty in comparison with Avocados and Sweetcorn (cleanest) with the least pesticide residue.
One of the biggest challenges, in this case, was identifying what triggered the outbreak since the production batches had not been tagged and could not be traced back to the farm.
With no means of knowing what went wrong, the CDC expressed concern about a possible recurrence. Currently, the government is implementing stringent traceability solutions to improve recall ability and traceability in the future. The USFDA lists and provides information gathered from press releases and other public notices about certain recalls of FDA-regulated products. This list is exhaustive as it lists the brand and company that sells it is highlighted so the consumers, both households and hotel businesses know and identify these food packets and prepare a proper disposal plan.
Often, traceability is considered an extremely complicated and hard-to-implement process, making many small farmers and supply chains wary of investing in it.
However, simple traceability measures such as integrated data systems, batch tracking, and farming condition monitors with QR codes and sensors can do a great job for limited-scale operations.
For large-scale operations with multiple stakeholders and touchpoints, blockchain offers easy-to-implement and reliable traceability solutions enabling the farmers to retailers with the power of data and accurate harvest date, time and its provenance through the food chain uptil the aisles of the supermarkets.
Blockchain is often considered one of the most reliable solutions for traceability as the platform allows you to record transactions at various instances of manufacturing and record them for future references.
These recordings are permanent and can be made accessible to end-users seamlessly.
Such solutions can help trace a particular lot back to the farm and trigger an investigation for contamination/bad practices, as was required for the romaine lettuce E-coli outbreak or the Listeria warning for Strawberries.
Considering Avocados, they can also be tracked batch-wise, recording the ripeness checks, temperature changes in transit and the storage conditions to arrive at an actionable solution to reduce the rejection rate.
Farm-to-fork traceability is critical for exports as well, case in point for produce for the king of fruits – Mango from India to USA, UK and across the world. Other countries including Peru, Pakistan, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala also export mangoes. Implementing the data based monitoring, beginning from the farmers to type and quality of produce, the process of loading it in those cold storages, and spraying methods of preservation during shipping until the carton of mangoes reach an aisle in Costco or Tesco. These data based online traceability solutions work very well for both farmers and food retailers as the information about the produce is accurate and relevant to suit their independent needs.
If you are a farmer or a warehouse owner in this fragile supply chain, contact us to design custom solutions for your traceability needs.
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'Traceability in 2020: Global Scenario with a focus on India'