Quality Control in the Produce Industry
By Jeffrey Honey, Director of Training & Development
The fresh fruit & vegetable industry is a fascinating place to be. Don’t think of it as watching asparagus growing in a field. Think of a vast industry that operates with just-in-time delivery of perishable products, many with limited shelf life and very specific storage temperatures. As someone said to me many years ago when he had a load of California table grapes stuck at the border, “This isn’t hardware, you know!”
Take a look around a produce department. Look at where all of those products came from. Carrots from Bradford. Tomatoes from Leamington. Kiwi from Italy. Grapes from South Africa. Asparagus from Peru. The list goes on and on. So how can it all look so good at your local store when it has travelled for hours, days or weeks? Quality control (QC) at multiple points in the journey.
The QC people ensure that whatever arrives at their back door is what was ordered by the buyers. It has to be fresh, crisp and bright. If it is dull, wilted, discoloured or decayed, it isn’t going to make it to the retail displays. Decisions have to be taken quickly. Is it to be rejected or regraded? Was it in suitable shipping condition before it left its point of origin, or was it damaged in transit? Is it the correct variety, size, colour, firmness or sweetness?
Fresh produce has to be cut, dug or picked. It has to be cooled as quickly as possible. It has to be graded to some sort of grade standards or retail specifications. It has to be properly packed and palletized in a manner that ensures that it is delivered in saleable condition. A receiver has to check temperatures on arrival. A QC person has to make sure that the product actually meets certain quality and condition criteria on arrival. All of this has to be done with international good agricultural practices in mind, and food safety at the forefront of every turn that the produce takes.
Where could you fit into this massive industry? Think of what you know, or what you want to learn. You don’t need to know how to drive a tractor if you live in the city. You don’t need to know how to grade citrus fruit if you live in Northern Ontario, either. Canada relies on over 60,000 temporary foreign workers every year to plant, care for, harvest and pack fresh fruits and vegetable across Canada. It is hard work, long hours, and the weather does not always cooperate. It can be very rewarding to harvest what you tended to during the growing season.
If you want to work in the produce industry in Ontario, start here. This new Ontario website gathers job listings and resources for grocery retail, food processing, distribution, agriculture and agribusinesses. The website is available at Ontario.ca/AgFoodJobs.
You can work on a farm without having a bundle of certifications, but you may wish to pursue some training to get ahead. A good understanding of good agricultural practices and food safety can be gleaned from this website: https://www.canadagap.ca/ If you secure employment on a farm, in a greenhouse, or even in a packing plant, you may wish to sign up for the training and be certified. The same goes for handling agricultural chemicals in Ontario. Information on that program is here:
If you want to operate machinery in your new job, you will need this type of certification here:
People who are going for an interview for a quality control job should know a little about grade standards and why we have them. Grade standards are considered to be a common language in the produce industry. This means that a Canadian importer could use a broker in the United States to source table grapes from Chile, and everybody knows what is expected. In Canada, we have grade standards for thirty fresh fruits and vegetables. They are housed in the Safe Food For Canadians Regulations here:
If you are not sure what you just read, those grade standards are interpreted here in government inspection manuals here:
It doesn’t matter if you live in the country or the city, QC is just as important at shipping point as it is at destination. Shippers have to ensure that what is leaving the packing plant is going to meet the customers’ requirements. QC staff in the receiving warehouses have to make sure that what is arriving is up to standard. If something is “just passing through” a retail chain’s distribution centre, a wholesale’s warehouse on the way to a retailer, or a cold storage, QC will most likely check the produce again on the way out.
Good food is expensive, and it requires good people throughout the supply chain to monitor it. If you think that you have what it takes, talk to someone. Visit a grower, make an appointment to meet QC people in the wholesale or retail business, talk to your local green grocer or produce manager. Start at your local retail store if that is your only option. Get a foot in the door and learn. Knowledge is power, no matter where you work!