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    Product Testing, Part 2: Produce Perishability and the Need for Speed

    Julia Stewart:
    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart, and welcome back to PMA’s audio blog, “Ask Dr. Bob” with PMA’s Chief Science & Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker. In the last post we introduced the issue of product testing and Bob promised to share with us some of the issues, challenges and opportunities surrounding this “hot” topic for our industry. In this post, we’re going to talk about the challenge posed by the very thing that makes our products so special: freshness. Bob, why isn’t testing fresh produce just like testing, I don’t know, let’s say canned soup?

    Julia, as a food category, produce is unique because of its perishability. We don’t have the luxury of being able to hold products like companies who make shelf-stable foods. In our case, failing to get most of our products to market as quickly as possible has product quality implications – and that can cause product to be refused and sales to be lost.  It’s critical for crops to be harvested, cooled, packed and shipped as quickly as possible to preserve quality.

    Indeed our whole logistics chain is built around that premise, and we pride ourselves on getting product to market quickly. Likewise, consumers and buyers value this speed because it means they will receive the highest quality, freshest product possible.  Many buyers today demand products be shipped within 24 to 48 hours after harvest – and in the case of processed products, often demand same-day-as-processed shipments.  However, as buyers increasingly request finished-product testing in some commodities, the industry has struggled to find workable programs that accomplish both testing and shipping requirements.  This is principally because of the time required to sample, transport the sample to a lab, process the sample for testing, perform the test and communicate the test results before product can be released to the marketplace. “Test and hold” programs have proven difficult to implement in our industry unless buyers are willing to give up some shelf life to permit the 24 to 48 hours it typically takes to conduct testing using today’s testing methods.  Our industry is rife with stories of operators who’ve faced some very difficult challenges as a result of not fully understanding the implications of setting up product testing programs. So it is critically important to think through the ramifications of product testing.

    But Bob, although government does not require testing right now, and that may change, in some cases not testing product is not a real choice since the testing is driven by buyers, as a condition of sale in the marketplace. So what can industry members really do?

    Well Julia, you have to have a plan.  Let’s face it, in recent years we have seen companies perform recalls based on initial test results that were not confirmed, we’ve seen recalls initiated based on faulty lab practices that led to inaccurate tests, and we’ve even seen cases where products were placed on hold due to a positive test result but were mistakenly shipped anyway so that they had to be recalled after the mistake was discovered. 

    We have also seen the pressures of delivering an order resulting in folks sending out the product while still waiting for the test results to come back from the lab.  That’s a very risky approach which sometimes has resulted in product having to then be withdrawn or recalled when positive tests are found and the affected product has to be removed from the market.  Similarly, we have seen suppliers struggle when they hold finished products in a warehouse waiting for the test results to come in.  The day or two it takes to get the data back from a lab means the shipper has to store the product longer which has an expense associated with it.  It also highlights the fact that the shelf life clock is ticking – that’s another day or two worth of shelf life shaved off the product.  Another way of looking at it is that it’s also another day or two worth of freshness lost.    And not to be glib, but that’s when everything works well and the result of the test is “negative”.  If a positive test is determined, confirmation testing can take another 48 -72 hours beyond the initial test rendering the product all but useless if it’s subsequently shown to be pathogen-free. 

    It’s a real challenge and a very delicate balance.  Unfortunately we’re out of time for now. Bob, in our next post I’d like you to explain a bit more of exactly how one can go about making a decision on product testing issues. So listeners, be sure not to miss that one! Until next time.

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