By Amy Lance, fruit buyer at U.K. supermarket chain Waitrose
Amy Lance is on the last leg of her year-long sabbatical gaining real-life, hands-on experience working with different growers around the world. She’s been picking chillies in 100 degree heat in Senegal and collecting chicken eggs on an organic farm in southern California – and now she’s working at Stems, a South African Stone Fruit supplier based in Paarl.
I have been privileged over the last eight months to work alongside growers of fresh produce for Asian, African, North American and European markets. Previously my eyes were only ever set on the U.K. market, with its own set of specific requirements.
So understanding the quality requirements of so many more unique markets, the intricacies of their technical specifications and packaging stipulations, the differences in the commercial agreements and just seeing where business priorities lie for buyers around the world has really opened my eyes to market diversity.
The U.K. may have high standards, many would argue that they are the most stringent standards in the world, but one thing that every market, retailer, marketer and grower has in common is the desire to serve their customers good quality, long-lasting, tasty, fresh produce.
Each year as a buyer for instance, the target is to improve quality standards and sell the best quality fresh produce in the market, while minimising waste in-store and with the consumer. I know now that every link along the entire supply chain has close eyes on its competition and wants its product to be more appealing than the product of the grower, supplier or retailer next door.
By spending many of my days in California, Senegal and South Africa working on a production line packing, and assessing quality with the packhouse teams I feel I have moved closer than ever to understanding how we can satisfy quality aspirations and serve our global customers; with an acute awareness of the product and a strong emphasis on agility.
Packing is exhausting, fast-paced, foot-numbing, and in many cases you do the job in either roasting hot or freezing cold conditions. It is by no means comfortable. Although, by packing I have seen the most product I have ever seen, the experience has enabled me to start to understand the processes better – production, product, problems and solutions, defects, sizing; even as the product is flashing before my eyes down a conveyor belt.
For me, standing on the production line was also the best place to re-think U.K. quality requirements. As a retailer, it may be perceived that by having the tightest quality specification in the market we can achieve ultimate customer satisfaction and the best quality product for our customers, enabling the consumer to waste as little as possible in their home. I’m not sure I was ever convinced, but now I really do not think this is the case.
The difficulty lies when we start making decisions at one end of the supply chain, especially around product quality and waste, without due consideration or understanding of the machinations of that supply chain. We are often generating more fresh produce waste or at best, inadvertently shifting it from one point in the supply chain to the next.
As I joined the industry, back in 2008, the EU regulations for fresh produce changed and a raft of 26 specific marketing standards were reduced to just 10. At the time there was discussion about how this could negatively affect consumers and the market, but there was also mention of the benefits, how this change could reduce unnecessary waste in the supply chain.
This conversation seems to have continued across the industry and in the press ever since, but have we reached any solid conclusions?
As I expected when I set out on my sabbatical, in many developed markets, it’s been no surprise that we are still amongst one of the toughest markets to serve. This led me to start thinking about redefining quality standards and what “quality” actually means to our customers. For simplicity here, I’ll boil my thinking down to three simple questions.
• Do customers know what they want?
• Are we getting it right?
• Are we also able to balance this customer quality expectation with a reduction in supply chain waste?
The top read fresh produce news story in 2016 was about reducing waste in the supply chain. With multiple TV shows and regular written media coverage, customers have undoubtedly become more and more aware of the avoidable waste being generated within the industry. The difficulty, of course, is achieving the optimum balance between a consistent supply of high quality fresh produce and minimal waste.
One of the most widely marketed strategies that supermarkets have put in place to minimise supply chain waste is the introduction of ‘wonky’ produce lines, generally U.K. sourced. Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose all now have wonky produce lines,
Waitrose started by utilising ‘weather blemished apples’ in specific retail packs along with Class II product for jam-making and cooking more than nine years ago. As well as the solo packs, Asda also now ranges a £3.50 mixed wonky veg box and Morrisons gave away 200,000 wonky carrots at Christmas to educate children about fresh produce not needing to be cosmetically perfect (and illustrate that it understands there is an issue).
Although the ‘wonky’ veg headlines often introduce a very positive story and have provided some positive publicity and education to customers, this will not solve all of our problems in the business of selling great quality product and minimising waste.
I think we could be bolder, reviewing attributes of every fruit, vegetable and salad line being supplied into entry-level, mid-tier and top-tier ranges throughout retail. I feel this would have more of an impact on total waste between producer and retailer. This is not a task for someone at a desk in the U.K., but for the field and packing line.
It is also not a task that should be carried out to the tune of the retail technical manager alone, proper solutions can only be developed through healthy debate between the farmer, packer, marketer and retailer. Only then, with a good level of collaboration will we start creating sustainable solutions.
We tie ourselves up in knots with very detailed requirements, but is that because the industry wants them, or genuinely because the consumer demands it.
Does the presence of a chilli stalk encourage a purchase? Does the customer notice the crown on a pineapple? Does the customer buy the fruit for presentation in a fruit bowl or do they only care about eating it? Do they care what percentage of russet there is on a nectarine or apple? Or the amount of scarring on a plum? Does the presence of a pomegranate crown affect the quality of the arils inside? Does the fuzz on a peach really disturb the vast majority of consumers that much?
There are thousands more questions like that being asked every day in retail offices, not just in the U.K. but around the world. Maybe we could ask whether some of our quality requirements do more to restrict trade than enhance it and whether we are increasing the generation of unnecessary waste rather than reducing it?
The U.K. market has its reputation for a good reason – attention to detail is incredible and that should not change. Of course we don’t want to be shipping progressive amounts of defects to the customer, wasting fuel and increasing our carbon footprint.
We need to be smart about defining what quality means, understanding the parameters of progressive and non-progressive defects. What defects are going to affect respiration rate and storage potential? Just where is the consumer tipping point when they are making their purchasing decisions?
I see future efficiency in the fresh produce supply chain beginning with retailers proactively re-defining quality standards throughout the year.
Together I feel we need to understand the whole supply chain to ensure waste isn’t shifted from one step in the supply chain to the next. We need to benefit ourselves by re-defining the specifications and taking the physiology of the product into consideration.
This will hopefully lead the market in a sustainable fashion. It may be something of a cliché, but I’m still going to say it. Being transparent and collaborative and working together to identify the best solutions for everyone in the supply chain is the best way to generate sustainable results. To solve a problem everyone has to recognise their share of responsibility.