Quality assessment of fruit and vegetables is all about trust
Shiny apples, juicy pears, full cauliflowers, bright red tomatoes... the assortment of Dutch fruit and vegetable shops and supermarkets is usually a feast for the eyes and excels in quality and variety. But behind those well-stocked shelves, there is a thorough process of European quality standards and inspections. Frans Isbouts, quality controller at Kiwa, tells more about it.
Fresh fruit and vegetables grown, traded and exported within the EU must comply with European marketing standards. These standards are laid down in European regulations 543/2011 and 1333/2011 and contain quality requirements and regulations for the way in which the designation – information about, among other things, country of origin, quality class and grading – must be applied to the product. In the Netherlands, the Quality Control Bureau (Kwaliteits-Controle-Bureau, KCB) checks whether these trading standards are being complied with.
The KCB set up Agro Quality Support (AQS) in 1997 for inspections and sampling 'in the field'. As of 2015, AQS operates independently of the KCB, since 2020 under the flag of the Kiwa Group. ‘Kiwa AQS is known as an independent expert on the full breadth of the fruit and vegetable sector,’ says Frans Isbouts. ‘Our customer base not only includes growers associations and trading companies, but also processors, sorting and packing stations and, of course, retailers. We support all these companies with sampling, shop and supplier assessments, shelf life checks and quality inspections.’
According to Frans, Kiwa is often engaged in the context of continuous quality control, as an independent third party or in case of ambiguity or disagreement between, for example, supplier and customer. But how exactly does such a quality inspection work? As an example, Frans gives a recent order in which Kiwa was asked by a bell pepper supplier to check whether a batch of fruit actually did not meet the requirements, as claimed by the customer. ‘That involved a batch of three pallets of bell peppers, so three hundred boxes of five kilos each. According to the buyer, the fruits did not meet the Class I quality requirements and it was up to me to determine whether he was right about that.'
Penetrometer and refractometer
And so Frans went to work on location with a random check of the batch of peppers. 'In this case it was about the size of the fruit, so it's a matter of removing a representative quantity from the batch and measuring it with a yardstick. But in exceptional cases it can also concern, for example, the color or the sugar content of a product. For that I use other tools. I always have color samples and size templates with me. I can measure the firmness of a product with a penetrometer, a device that converts the force with which I press it against a fruit into a certain value. I can measure the sugar content of a product with a refractometer. I deposit a few drops of juice on a prism, after which I can determine how much sugar the product contains based on the refractive index.'
In the case of the batch of bell peppers, Frans established that they did meet the applicable requirements and that the complaining customer was therefore wrong. ‘You notice that consumers are becoming more and more demanding and that retailers are raising the bar. In the end, of course, it's all about money, so there's a lot at stake.' Nevertheless, Frans only sporadically experiences his judgment being questioned. ‘First of all, we naturally work according to quality requirements that are clear and comprehensible to everyone,’ says Frans. ‘Moreover, as Kiwa we are a well-known name in the industry. We are known as an independent party with a great deal of experience, expertise and a thorough approach. Our customers trust us and that is of course crucial in our field.’
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