Processing organic vegetables, once a niche specialty, is now big business. However, while crops grown without pesticides are regarded by consumers as exceptionally natural and safe, they bring processing lines additional complications and risks.
Complications arise because organic vegetables are far less consistent than their non-organic equivalents in quality, size and shape. Huge variations in product quality come rolling down the line, not just from one day to the next but also within the same batch. And when processors strive to deal with such variables, they end up discarding vegetables which are too good to waste. TOMRA Food knows of one well-respected processing business that was rejecting 50-60% of all its organic carrots as unfit for human consumption, and losing much of this potentially valuable produce to low-value animal feed.
And the risks? These are inherent in the loads delivered by growers to processors, which contain more impurities than their non-organic equivalents. This obliges processors to detect and reject higher levels of foreign material such as insects and rodents, as well as more quality defects in the vegetables, such as holes and discolorations resulting from bugs and insects. And even more with organic than non-organic vegetables there is always the need to look out for extraneous vegetable material (EVM) such as stems, stalks, and pea pods, plus foreign extraneous vegetable materials (FEVM) such as datura and nightshade.
These operational challenges previously discouraged some processors from attempting to handle organic crops. But there is a stronger business case for investing in the sorting technologies that can get the job done now that this market is expanding, and expanding fast. Global sales of organic foods are forecast to increase in annual value in the next five years at an extraordinary compound annual growth rate of 10.7%.
Increasing numbers of shoppers like the certainty of knowing that vegetables produced without pesticides cannot contain traces of chemical contaminants. Consumers also like to know they are doing their bit for the environment. And though having a conscience costs money, because organic crops are costlier to produce, more people around the world are willing to pay the higher price. Sales are rising not only in the traditionally wealthy markets of North America and Europe, but also in the developing markets of China and India, the two most populous nations on earth.
With modern sorting solutions, processors will be able to handle this rising demand at the same time as assuring food safety and product quality. Today’s sorting machines employ a wide range of technologies, sometimes independently of each other and sometimes in combination, to accomplish different and sometimes difficult tasks. Naturally those tasks include the detection and ejection of quality-related defects as well as FM, FEVM and EVM from organic vegetables.
“Having compared the different solutions on the market, we opted for the TOMRA Halo. It is a flexible sorter, and it guarantees the best results in combination with high performance for both our fresh carrot lines and our organic carrot line. Thanks to TOMRA sorters we have improved the quality of our products – especially in the organic range, which is always more complex to handle due to the sometimes high volume of product defects,” states Tobias Brun, MD T. Brun Frischgemüse.”
TOMRA Food’s sorting solutions also enable processors to improve efficiencies, reduce food waste, and enhance profits. Remember the European processor discarding all those carrots? Now that line’s sorting technologies have been optimized, it is recuperating more of its initially rejected produce – and rather than selling second-quality product as animal feed, it is now fetching higher prices as ingredients for bags of frozen vegetables and soup. Even with products as tricky as organic vegetables, sorting solutions can eliminate risks and elevate profits.