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Post-storage packing and distribution of fruit

Once graded, place fruit in a suitable container to avoid damage. All product should be ‘cool chained’ up to and including the point of sale.

Planning

  • Identify the intended customer.
  • Plan packing against a known customer programme.
  • Ensure all personnel involved in the packing operation are fully conversant with the customer specification requirements, including all aspects of packaging.
  • Most multiple customers require dedicated crates, customised packaging and labelling.
  • Ensure sufficient stock of correct packaging is available to meet the programme.
  • Ensure all operatives have had induction training on site health and safety issues. 
  • Ensure all on-line operatives have been trained for their specific tasks.
  • Ensure all equipment is in good working order, fit for purpose and calibrated where applicable.
  • Calibration records should be kept, with clear reference to identified equipment. This is particularly relevant to scales for weighing product on-line and for QC equipment.
  • It is a legal requirement that all product sold by minimum weight must be weighed on scales that have been DTI stamped i.e. approved by the Department of Trade and Industry, now Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). Any calibration by a certified engineer must have been carried out with weights traceable to national standards and identified as such on any calibration certificate.
  • A certified engineer should calibrate equipment at least once a year and more frequently on a busy site.
  • Calibration checks on scales must take place at least once a day before starting a production run and ideally at the end of the batch. Calibration weights should take account of the intended range in weights i.e. check using weights that represent the bottom and top end of the range.
  • Penetrometers, refractometers, thermometers, QC sizing rings and all scales must be calibrated regularly.
  • Identify labelling requirements and ensure equipment and associated software will produce labels compliant with customer specification.
  • Identify and install QC procedures required to meet customer requirements.

Customer programme

  • Fruit should always be sold as part of an agreed customer programme, if optimum returns are to be realised.
  • Programmes will allow controlled marketing. This will in turn allow packers to pack and distribute fruit in the optimum condition, with sufficient stock to be flexible on a day to day basis, but without unnecessary build up and deterioration of stock.
  • In practice the packhouse will receive a weekly programme, with order confirmation on a daily basis received from the sales office.
  • The packer should ideally pack sufficient stock for the orders anticipated for the next day. On this basis fruit would not have been packed more than 36 hours before despatch. There will be exceptions to this rule, for example the build-up prior to Christmas. However, this must be an exception rather than the rule.

Packaging materials

  • Packaging materials should be appropriate for the customer, destination, and mode of transport.
  • Best practice for multiple outlets will utilise plastic RDTs (retail display trays) as the outer packaging unit. RDTs also come in cardboard as the second favoured option.
  • Wholesale markets often prefer a 30 lb or 40 lb sealed box, rather than RDTs.
  • RDTs can be placed directly on to the retail shelf thus avoiding any unnecessary decanting of fruit. Decanting will inevitably increase the risk of in-store damage to the product and cost to the producer.
  • Plastic crates offer the best protection for fruit in transit and are more cost efficient than cardboard equivalents. The turnaround cost comparison generally shows that plastic is half the cost of cardboard. In addition, regulations for the disposal of waste materials increase the hidden costs for cardboard.
  • Internal packaging i.e. fibre-moulded trays offer the best protection for loose product and allow maximum presentation of loose product at the retail level.
  • If product is well presented, it will reduce the level of consumer selection and handling in the store that so often spoils otherwise acceptable fruit. This spoiling of product and eye appeal detracts from sales.
  • Pre-packed fruit in the form of polybags or over wraps offer two distinct advantages. Polybag fruit allows easy selection by the consumer and introduction of promotions of smaller sizes (25% extra for example). However, fruit must be of consistent quality within the pack or loss of consumer confidence will result in fewer repeat purchases.
  • Over wrapping i.e. 4 or 6 apples in moulded trays sealed with cellophane, offers the opportunity to add value to fruit with enhanced attributes. For example for ready-to-eat (pre-ripened) fruit.
  • MAP (modified atmosphere packing) which is commonplace in other product areas, usually by positive MAP (injected gases in the case of meat) is still in development for the apple supply chain.
  • This technology has been tried in the past, but now improved permeable films offer an opportunity for MAP to become a standard procedure. This type of MAP will rely on a product-generated atmosphere using permeable films to establish and control the atmosphere inside the pack. Product will be packed into polybags and punnets.
  • The benefit of this technology is a greatly enhanced shelf life, delivering enhanced texture to the consumer. The same technology will become commonplace in stone fruit and soft fruit as well.

Packing product into the final container (RDT or Pre-Pack unit)

  • Assuming that grading has been carried out as described in the section on ‘post storage grading of fruits‘, fruit will arrive at the final packing point for selection and packing into the RDT either as loose or pre-packed product.
  • Before fruit is accepted onto the line, it should be assessed as suitable for the intended customer. This should be done by reference to QC reports carried out at the grading point and from a further assessment to confirm status before use.
  • This assessment must involve confirmation of FTA readings (firmness), Brix levels (sugar) and taste acceptance (free of any taints etc.) as well as general quality criteria.
  • Information on raw material quality onto the grading line will allow supervisors to ensure correct placement of packing line operatives and provide any relevant instructions. For example, a higher than normal proportion of apples that are marginal for shape or russeting requires extra vigilance on-line.
  • Correct packaging and any associated labels should be confirmed and signed off by management in advance of the packing operation.
  • All aspects of handling should be taken with extreme care. An apple can bruise as easily as an egg can break. All packing operatives should be made aware of the care needed.
  • All staff should be clean and tidy, with short fingernails. If gloves are worn they must be of a suitable material and non-allergenic.
  • Hygiene training has been dealt with in the harvest and handling section.  Additionally, as a minimum, pack-house supervisors should have a certificate for Basic Food Hygiene Training.
  • Induction training on health and safety issues should be a standard.
  • An experienced trainer who, ideally, will have qualifications for training should give training in quality requirements.
  • At the final packing stage operatives should be ensuring that fruit not only meets the customer specification but is also presented to maximum effect. As the market place becomes increasingly competitive it is essential that presentation is maximised. This also applies to labels, whether on individual apples or on pre-packed product. Both should be positioned consistently and in compliance with customer requirements.
  • Labels for pre-packed fruit must carry the information required by law and customer specification.
  • Placement of pre-pack and over wrap packs into the ‘outer container’ is important on two counts. Firstly, to ensure that the product is packed in a manner that provides minimum risk from pressure marking (bruising against other packs or against the crate etc.). Secondly, to comply with customer requirements for presentation at the retail level.
  • Most customer specifications require a particular arrangement of the packs within the crates and these should be tested in-house. Any detrimental effects on the fruit should be discussed with the customer via marketing/technical personnel.
  • Where product is sold by minimum weight, all packed units must be weighed on DTI/BERR approved scales. Trading Standards Officers will check these if they confirm any reported under-weights at the retail display level.
  • The ability to demonstrate compliance with legal requirements will be a due-diligence defence if prosecution for under-weights takes place.
  • Sufficient tare for any packaging materials used must be allowed for and added into the final pack weight, where minimum weights apply.
  • The effect of moisture loss will result in reduction of packed unit weight from point of packing until its final acceptance point. This must be anticipated by adding sufficient tare to compensate for moisture loss.
  • Most customer specifications indicate the required tare to accommodate moisture loss. This will vary between 10-30g per kg. This is sufficient for pre-packs but for loose product in a 12kg RDT (approximately 26lb) a 100g allowance may be required.

NOTE. UK Apples are generally sold by weight, using the Minimum Weight Regulations.

  • Where automated polybagging machines are used that optimise weight and minimise giveaway weight, it is a legal requirement for machines that are not DTI/BERR approved (stamped) that packs are check weighed on a separate DTI/BERR approved scale before release for sale to the consumer.
  • In pre-packs, sale by count is becoming popular. For trading standards purposes a consumer must be given a consistent offer. It is not permissible to offer 10 apples of 60-65mm one week, and then offer on promotion (indicating an increased value offer) 10 x 55-60mm apples (less weight) at a lower price the next week. The offer must be comparable.
  • Average weight regulations are commonly used for products such as flour and sugar (fine grained) where an average weight (label depicts an ‘e’ mark) can be offered. For example a nominal 1 kg pack can legally fluctuate between 985g and 1015g, but must average 1000g).  This is probably impractical for apples with average individual weights of 100+g and would give no benefit to the grower/packer/supplier over minimum weight regulations. 

Stacking fruit for optimum air flow and security

  • When stacking boxes on pallets always try to optimise the flow of air between the boxes.
  • In practice plastic crates, or any other RDT (cardboard) packed for a multiple customer will not allow any deviation from the basic 3 x 2 per layer and will need to be tight to each other for efficient transportation.
  • Where an impact can be made is on early season fruit such as Discovery that is targeted for the wholesale market. Fruit quality will benefit from spacers between the boxes to allow air movement.
  • Benefit would be gained also where fruit in market boxes moves quickly from the orchard into a cold store and then on to the marketplace in the same boxes.


Optimum pallet loading (full pallets)

  • Optimising pallet loading will benefit quality and cost efficiency.
  • Where part-loaded pallets travel long distances, transit damage will occur. On occasions this can result in fruit arriving below the customer specification and will result in rejection.
  • Part pallets will often end up stacked on top of other pallets in transit. This increases the risk of damage.
  • The optimum loading per pallet will depend on various factors:
  • Height of the pallet in relation to lorry height space. The longer the journey the greater the gain in quality and cost efficiency from maximum pallet height.
  • Health and safety regulations. Acceptable pallet heights must be determined by risk assessment.
  • Multiple retailer customers will often operate different height restrictions. This is because risk assessment will take into account the circumstances in operating areas, which may be different. Receiving high load pallets may be possible if a system of de-stacking can be employed without risk of injury to operatives. Some companies may err on the side of caution when setting height limits.

Securing fruit on pallets

  • Securing individual pallets will depend on the type of box used.
  • Whichever type of box is used, careful alignment is paramount. Boxes overlapping the pallet, however slight this may be, or not tight to one another, will result in damage to the product and/or packaging at the destination. Even an untidy appearance will impact on the saleability of the product.
  • Cardboard RDT’s require corner boards and strapping. A minimum of 3 straps should be used at the top, middle and bottom of the pallet.
  • It is important to maintain this format. If the bottom strap is too far up, it will result in the bottom boxes bowing and compressing. This will be exacerbated by damp air conditions.
  • Corner boards may be used as a ‘belt and braces’ approach to secure plastic RDT’s. Generally they will be secured adequately by 2-3 plastic straps. Standard practice would be for the top strap to be on the penultimate layer and the lower strap on the 4th layer from the bottom.
  • All plastic straps should be tight. This can only be achieved effectively with a strap tightener.
  • Where pallets with fruit exposed (cardboard RDTs) are intended for the wholesale market, best practice should include the use of pallet covers. This will reduce the potential for soiling and in particular the risk of birds attacking the exposed fruit.
  • Where fruit is intended for a multiple outlet and is conveyed through a closed system the use of pallet covers may not be necessary. This implies that fruit is loaded directly from the despatch store onto a lorry through closed system (docking bay) and unloaded again at a docking bay.
  • If pallets with fruit exposed are not transferred by closed system best practice should include pallet covers. The cost of pallet covers is approximately 75p each

Labelling boxes and pallets

  • Labels should be printed and used in the packhouse in a tightly controlled manner.
  • Before use, all new labels should be approved. This will involve the printer operator receiving a specification from the commercial manager. A specimen label should be printed and passed back to the commercial manager for checking and finally sending to the customer for approval.
  • On a daily basis, the printer will check labels against the specification/specimen and print only sufficient for the intended order with 2 extra for label print records. The print number should be recorded in the label print records.
  • Labels should be checked at the start of the print run and at the end of the run.
  • Where bar codes are an integral part of the label, they should also be scanned with a suitable approved scanner to ensure that the bar codes are readable and are carrying the correct information.
  • Printed labels will then be passed to the supervisor, who will check the labels and sign for acceptance.
  • Any unused labels must be returned, destroyed, and recorded in label print records.
  • The same procedures are applicable for box end and product (polybag) labels
  • Labels applied to RDTs should be securely placed in the designated position. If labels become dislodged, valuable information on traceability will be lost, in addition to the risk of rejection by the customer depot QC.
  • Some of the multiple sorting systems depend on label presence and accuracy; therefore label compliance will become ever more critical in the future.
  • In addition to box end labelling, pallets should also have a large clear destination label placed in a prominent position.
  • Some multiples require a standard bar coded pallet label usually colour coded as well. This will soon become the standard for all.
  • All pallets should be checked for correct labels as part of final inspection, before despatch.

Traceability

  • As part of label information, full traceability must be maintained.
  • Each label must have the supplier identity, either by name or by accepted code or both.
  • In addition the grower identity should be shown as a code on the label.
  • ‘Display until’ information will normally be included.
  • All information aids traceability. Consumer complaints advised to suppliers will always refer to ‘display until’ dates as well as supply codes etc.
  • Traceability is important for all involved in the supply chain. Any question against the safety of product will result in its withdrawal. If clear traceability cannot be confirmed, safe product may also be withdrawn i.e. guilty by association.
  • Traceability back to the orchard may be difficult to record on the box end label. However, it is critical that records are held to demonstrate which orchards were used against each batch despatched.

Cool chain effect on fruit firmness

  • The benefits of maintaining a cool chain are described in the ‘Maintaining quality during marketing’ section of the guide.
  • The maximum benefit will be gained where a cool chain is maintained up to and including the retail display.
  • This benefit is recognised by the retailer but the cost of conversion means implementation will take time in the larger retail operations.
  • Cool chain at the retail level allows more ‘ready-to-eat’ fruit to be displayed without loss of quality.
  • This in turn increases customer satisfaction and generates increased sales of higher value products.

Quality Control Operation

There are 4 distinct areas of QC within the grading and packing operation, namely raw material assessment, on-line QC inspection, final QC inspection and shelf life assessment.

Raw material assessment

On-Line QC inspection

  • This is designed to ensure packed product is within the specification. It is the responsibility of supervisors to maintain the required standard but QCs should monitor the situation by sampling fruit at various stages of each production run.
  • Product should be inspected and the results recorded at the beginning, during and at the end of the production run. Times of inspection should be recorded.
  • Assessment should be made for visual quality, firmness using a FTA machine, edibility, label compliance and pack weight conformance.
  • QC staff carrying out on-line checks should have access to the most up-to-date customer specifications.
  • As a guide 3% of product should be inspected on line.
  • The QC should inform the supervisor of any quality issues and appropriate action must be taken. This may result in stopping the line, withdrawing product and rectifying the problem. For example product that is underweight will require re-weighing.

Final QC Inspection

  • Final QC Inspection should only be a confirmation of the status of the packed fruit.
  • If product at this stage of production is found to be below grade, clearly other QC inspections have failed. This is a serious issue and investigations should take place to identify where systems have failed.
  • Final QC inspection should take account of visual quality, fruit firmness using a FTA machine, weights, label compliance including traceable information, pallet stacking and security.
  • Some multiples require final inspection to be a positive release formally signed off and shown on a positive release pallet label. This is taking the place of depot inspection and passing the responsibility to the supplier to ensure product fully complies with customer specification.

Shelf life assessment

  • Shelf life procedures allow the supplier to monitor a sample of despatched product. This enables a pre-warning of any issues of product deterioration, which may indicate a serious problem requiring withdrawal of product or possibly a reduced ‘display until’ period.
  • For example, where a product loses its condition before the ‘display until’ date, it will be beneficial to the supplier, retailer and consumer to reduce the period on display.

British Retail Consortium (BRC) Standards

The procedures of best practice indicated in the sections on ‘Post storage grading of fruits’ and ‘Post storage packing and distribution of fruits’ deal with in-house grading and packing activities. However, the packing, environment and general procedures for all multiple customers and many higher profile wholesale customers require compliance with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) standard.

  • This code of practice covers all aspects of recognised best practice in product management systems.
  • Accredited auditors carry out audits of suppliers seeking to achieve the BRC standard.
  • The supplier may choose the auditor from a list of accredited auditors.
  • The supplier bears the cost of audit expenses and the audit results are the supplier’s property.
  • The supplier will authorise release of the audit reports to potential customers in support of any business agreement.