Getting the Right Balance With Food Quality

Fresh produce, I am often told, is a living product.  It's not nuts and bolts.  And every person who has told me this is absolutely correct.  You have to account for the natural variables in fresh fruit and vegetables, and you have to accept that as a perishable product it is deteriorating in quality every hour that it is in our or your care.

This is what sets it apart from many other products which are bought and sold as commodities.  But to what extent is this a true limit to our ambition of supplying / buying / distributing / cooking with the perfect fresh ingredients?

We work with specifications every day that we work.  They are the fundamental tool which underpins most of our processes, giving us the information we need in order to determine the characteristics of the product we are examining, be it fresh produce, meat, poultry, fish, dairy, baked goods or pasta salads.  Six days out of every seven we are using food specifications to grade these types of food, but as tools they can only go so far.  Beyond the mere numbers there is a further question of tolerance and common sense which needs to come into play.

Without giving away any sensitive information, it won't surprise anyone to know that just about every specification giving the quality requirements of fresh produce or fresh meat that we work with gives detailed measurements wherever possible - whether it be a very specific zero in some key quality factors affecting the marketability of the product, up to a percentage of the product which can be affected by other, less critical defects.  This is often given by weight, number affected within a box, or alternatively by surface area of the product itself.  Given that we have this built in tolerance when dealing with fresh food, rather than a manufactured product for which the process can be controlled in a tighter manner, is it not reasonable to expect perfection within those tolerances?

If you are happy to accept that 10% of your product may be affected by a non-critical quality defect, you should surely therefore be striving to meet KPIs of 99+ after those tolerances are built in.  Even though we are in an industry that can be affected by weather, both good and bad, handling, time, packaging, temperatures, and a product which is going to deteriorate quickly even when you do everything right, it is still a pleasure to see how many businesses are striving to deliver a perfect product regardless of the constraints.

Written by Tom New