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Automate fresh produce quality control
Getting in the new year’s resolution spirit? Here are 5 elements of handling fresh fruit and vegetable quality standards that you really ought to be turning digital in 2021. When done right, these will help you to enforce, maintain and dynamically manage quality control in real-time.
Physically Collecting Data
Think about the way that fresh fruits and vegetables are assessed, and you’ll quickly realize the inefficiencies involved in traditional methods of quality control. Within 5 years, we expect the entire process of collecting data to be fully automated. This will start from external attributes such as size, color, and defects, and soon include internal attributes such as sugar content and acidity, too. Rather than rely on subjective assumptions about the quality of the produce, or use manual effort that often damages the actual crop, the collection of data needs to be automated, consistent, and easy to complete, using a simple mobile app.
This is especially true when you consider the changing requirements that accurate quality control insists on. Let’s take one example, of table grapes. In the early part of the season, you may want a minimum Brix level of 14%. As the season matures, the minimum threshold will be 16%. Rather than relying on a PDF update, an email notification, and the hope that your on-site inspectors will modify their quality thresholds, by changing the algorithm in the office, the inspection will be automatically rejected if it doesn’t meet the quality standards.
Defining Inspection Protocols
Side by side with this, is what’s happening behind the scenes, from our management dashboard. While today, the inspector is responsible for making a judgement call on the quality of the fruits and vegetables, automation will soon make this yesterday’s solution. The QC manager can now define the checklist across the board for all inspectors, including which attributes to collect, and what defects to look into. The inspector becomes simply the data collector, while the QC operator makes the decisions at a much higher level.
This empowerment can’t be underestimated. The QC manager now has the tools in place to govern the actual inspection process, from anywhere in the world, reducing error and waste, and adding efficiencies that could never be achieved through manual processes.
Governing Quality Standards
Through automation, the customer can now configure their inspection protocols and know that the quality standards are consistent across the whole chain. From a single source, they can unify the management of the quality control process.
Think about this in practice, compared to what the industry has today. We’re currently working with a large international retailer that has more than 175 produce categories. Each week, they had traditionally sent over the quality specs for most categories of fruit or vegetable to their growers all over Europe, via PDF. They then simply had to hope for the best that the specifications were kept to, and that when the produce arrived, it was up to the requirements. Now, with our platform, the retailer simply updates the quality specifications in the dashboard, and it’s immediately reflected in the management dashboard and mobile app of the suppliers’ inspectors. No more PDFs, and no more crossed fingers.
Analyzing Shipment Rejection
Ask the majority of quality control stakeholders to explain their process for tracking and managing data, and they’ll likely point you to a pen and paper, followed by some kind of Excel spreadsheet or e-form software repository. In short, even logged information is unstructured data, making it almost impossible to benefit from. In the era of Big Data, this isn’t good enough.
With Clarifruit, we’re offering the ability to track, store and manage the raw data reading for each inspection, not just the average per box, but every reading, including size, color, defects and more. From the Clarifruit platform, it’s structured data, and can be used to analyze the root cause of a shipment rejection, for example. Run analytics on a whole shipment, and see if there were issues at a certain point, whether that’s the warehouse, the distribution center, the packaging plant, or locally at the retailer itself. With transparency into what’s happening at every stage, you can make changes in real-time, and use this actionable data to manage it immediately.
Identifying Trends and Challenges
Looking ahead, we can see how this structured data will be able to be tapped for unlimited data mining opportunities. Stakeholders will be able to analyze their raw data for insights based on location, seasons, suppliers, and more. A single centralized repository for quality control means you can work towards best practices, reducing waste, improving efficiencies, and saving serious money from your bottom line.
The Future is Mobile & Cloud-based – and We See Change on the Horizon
The driver for all of this digital transformation is the combination of a single mobile application that allows you to get an immediate, accurate, consistent answer on the quality of fruit and vegetables and a cloud-based Big Data platform that allows you to make real-time, data-informed decisions.
As a result, we predict a significantly larger market opportunity that will drive organizations towards providing higher quality produce, with less waste, and will make high-quality QC processes accessible to supply-chain segments such as the farming community, who have not been able to to perform QC on their own up until now.
Did you know that more than 20% of fruit and vegetables are lost between harvest and retail? This problem is larger than the produce itself, already a devastating reality. It is also having a heavy impact on water shortages, with blue water attributable to food waste at around 6% of all total withdrawals.
What’s Causing the Food Waste?
In order to go some way to solving this problem, we need to recognize what’s causing it to begin with. Let’s take a look at the main culprits, across the whole value chain.
Out-of-Date Harvesting Methods: In many cases, the problems happen at the earliest stages, on the fields themselves. One reason for this is that there is no accurate way to evaluate quality pre-harvest or on the tree at scale, and another is that quality control is both manual and expensive and so out of scope for most growers with limited budgets. In addition, there is limited data for the target quality standard at the point of harvest.
Many areas also have the additional challenge of poor weather, making it difficult to ascertain the root cause of the waste. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, losses at the farm level can be greater than 35% of all crops.
Packaging and Transport: In Central and Southern Asia, losses in transport can be as much as 30% of the overall yield, a huge amount of waste. As fruits and vegetables can be moved multiple times, take different routes, and go through numerous handlers, the ability to track the produce across the supply chain is limited.
At each handover, fresh fruits and vegetables will go through a negotiation process, where prices will be driven down, food rejected, and a certain percentage wasted. This not only causes unnecessary loss of fresh fruits and vegetables, it also makes it difficult for stakeholders to forecast their revenues or sales ahead of time.
Storage: Losses in storage can be as much as 50%, especially if the warehousing or storage provider does not have access to hermetically sealed packaging or adequate cold storage. As the time period between field and store can be weeks or even months, these numbers are not surprising. Of course, at the end of the period of storage, the fresh produce will go through another negotiation with the inspector for the retailer or buyer.
Stakeholders desperately need additional insight into the actual quality of the produce, otherwise they rely on subjective inspections that change from person to person and day to day, adding exponentially to the growing waste.
Consumer Expectations: Let’s not forget the losses at the retailer and consumer level. On the retail side of the equation, supermarkets and grocery stores are driven by consumer expectation, and the myth of ‘perfect produce’. To remain competitive, stores demand fully stocked shelves and a large variety of produce, much of which will never be sold.
Studies have shown that consumers underestimate what they waste, which in the US is as much as 40% of its post-harvest supply. Awareness and education can make a difference though. In the UK and Denmark as two examples, 5 years of awareness raising campaigns have led to a 20% reduction in household waste.
The Perfect Time to Make a Change
The UN General Assembly has named 2021 as the Year of Fruits and Vegetables, so there is no better time to meet these challenges head on, and utilize technology and automation to make a real difference. Here’s how we see things.
Clarifruit is the first of its kind, an end-to-end automatic QC solution that can meaningfully reduce the losses and waste that stakeholders experience across the value chain, from field to fork. By simply taking a photo of the produce in question with a regular smartphone device, anyone can benefit from AI-derived insights into the quality of the fruit or vegetable. This gives timely, objective and consistent data to help answer the question, “how much is this produce worth?” This in turn mitigates price renegotiations and the reliance on subjective guess-work for both the farmer, and the logistics and supply chain arena.
In addition, behind the scenes, Clarifruit offers a cloud-based management platform that adds visibility and control to the process of quality control. Businesses can see clearly where rejections and waste are caused, whether that is in the initial stages of harvest, in transit to warehousing, during storage, or for a specific produce type. With this data, stakeholders can make smart changes, such as altering vendors, or adding additional infrastructure to improve transport or management.
Let’s Make a Difference
The world is in great need of a scalable, automated tool that can truly impact the growing global waste problem, and meet the unique challenges of each stage of the supply chain. Clarifruit is that tool. Want to give it a try? Get your free credentials here.