Protecting fresh pineapples in transit and getting the ripe fruit to retail is a surprisingly intricate process. Vincent Omer-Decugis of Omer-Decugis & Cie explains why his group insists on IFCO RPCs for their exotic fruits. The sweetest of Ecuador’s pineapples are optimally protected from damage throughout their journey to Europe — all the way to the company’s state-of-the-art platform for tropicals and ripened fruit in the iconic International Market of Paris-Rungis.
It takes an average of 16 days on reefer containers for Ecuador’s Extra Sweet Terrasol pineapples to reach the shores of Rotterdam. From there, they make their way by truck to one of the top ripening facilities in Europe, owned and operated by SIIM, a subsidiary of the international group Omer-Decugis & Cie.
SIIM produces, imports, ripens and distributes a whole range of premium exotic fresh fruit and vegetables, including the pineapples making their way through the Panama Canal to Europe. What’s the first stop in Paris? The company’s ripening site in the iconic International Market of Paris-Rungis.
Opened in 2020 and spreading over 12,000 m², it has a simultaneous ripening capacity of 67 trucks (1,608 pallets). The storage potential stands at 1,000 pallets for an annual capacity of well over 100,000 tons of exotic fruits. Inside, there are cooling cells specifically engineered for the conservation of pineapples, with enhanced ventilation, ethylene extractors and a state-of-the art storage system. As technology goes, it is one of a kind in France, and the first of such a magnitude.
Vincent Omer-Decugis, CEO of Omer-Decugis & Cie, knows the pineapple journey intimately. He’s following it closely but calmly, secure in the knowledge that these exotics are safe and sound. Carefully cradled in IFCO RPCs, the pineapples are optimally protected from damage and will arrive at Paris-Rungis ready for ripening. There’s a very good reason why Vincent Omer-Decugis insists on IFCO RPCs for their pineapples. They help win the race against time.
"Evidently, perishable products depreciate over time," Vincent Omer-Decugis highlights, which makes for a stressful working environment. "In our business, we have two stars: the fruit and our consumers," he explains. "But every time we touch the fruit — during harvesting, packing, transporting, ripening — we somehow damage it. So, our strategy is to decrease the potential for damage at every step of the journey. We have to make sure that we have the lightest touch possible on our tropical fruit throughout the supply chain, from farm to customer. And IFCO directly supports this strategy."
The light touch starts at the oldest pineapple farm in Latin America, just outside of Santa Domingo at zero degrees latitude. Established in 1961 by two adventurous Americans and incorporated into the group Omer-Decugis & Cie in 2002, the plantation extends over 2,100 hectares and has an annual production of 55,000 tons. Most of the pineapples (70%) are destined for Europe.
The delicate nature of pineapples is one of the main reasons why SIIM has them placed straight into IFCO RPCs directly on the plantation in Ecuador. The protective nature of the IFCO RPC design ensures that the fresh pineapples can be packaged with the least amount of handling possible.
This helps avoid bruising and ensures the fruit is cooled as fast as possible. Faster cooling on the plantation avoids premature ripening and therefore increases shelf-life and reduces food loss and waste. It also means that the produce is transported in optimum conditions. In this context, optimum means cool, protected and well ventilated for more consistent ripening.
To appreciate the unique benefits of IFCO RPCs over single-use packaging, you first need to understand the challenges of transporting and protecting fresh pineapples across the Atlantic. Highly susceptible to mold and pathogens, there is a real risk that the quality of fresh pineapples could degrade during the long-distance ocean transport.
Since the air flows are better regulated when fresh produce is transported in IFCO RPCs, the entire load is more likely to maintain its superior quality through to the customer.
"This fruit is extremely sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, air flow, impact and pressure," explains David Paillasson, Commercial Director at IFCO. "Therefore, transporting fresh pineapples requires the highest level of care and a specific temperature control to preserve their sweet taste, freshness, crunchy texture and unique aroma."
What ensures that the IFCO RPCs are protecting fresh pineapples in transit? A pilot project provides the answers.
"We have to make sure that we have the lightest touch possible on our tropical fruit throughout the supply chain, from farm to customer. And IFCO directly supports this strategy"
To find the optimum packaging for protecting fresh pineapples, SIIM initiated a pilot project with IFCO in 2020. It involved first shipping the sanitized and food-safe IFCO RPCs out to the pineapple plantation in Ecuador, where the Extra Sweet Terrasol pineapples were packaged in the reusable crates directly at the packaging stations on the farm.
The fresh pineapples were then shipped back to Europe on the same reefer containers that brought the IFCO RPCs, put through the ripening process in Rungis, and then transported to retailers. Throughout, the pineapples remained in the sturdy IFCO RPCs, from plantation, transportation, storage and ripening — through to the retailer and customer.
"Thanks to the one-touch design, we were able to demonstrate that the IFCO RPCs provided optimum protection from damage, starting at harvest throughout every step of the journey to the customer," adds Paillasson.
Finally, the empty IFCO RPCs are then picked up at the retailers and taken to the dedicated IFCO wash centers, where they are sanitized and prepared for the next trip out to Ecuador.
In contrast to single-use packaging, IFCO RPCs are sturdy and have an optimum standardized design. This ensures the crates are stacked easily and uniformly for shipping. The knock-on effect is optimum storage capacity in the container. The tough and durable material and unique features of the IFCO RPCs support the delicate load, thereby protecting the fresh pineapples from damage throughout.
The positive results of the trial were not surprising, as SIIM had already seen the benefits of packing bananas in IFCO RPCs. Since 2018, SIIM has been shipping its Selvatica bananas in IFCO reusable plastic containers from Ecuador and were already convinced by the compelling advantages.
"The stackability of IFCO RPCs is perfect," confirms Vincent Omer-Decugis. "The main point for us is that IFCO RPCs ensure the most efficient container from farm to consumer, in other words throughout the whole supply chain."
There are a number of other compelling reasons why SIIM chooses to work closely with IFCO. Essentially, the values of both organizations perfectly align in more ways than one. SIIM, as a subsidiary of the group Omer-Decugis & Cie and IFCO all have a strong backbone in corporate social responsibility.
The group Omer-Decugis & Cie can trace its roots back to 1850. It has been in the capable hands of the same family for six generations. Like his forefathers, Vincent Omer-Decugis is strongly convinced of the necessity of sustainable agriculture and social performance across the whole value chain. As a result, the farming operations are certified according to GlobalGAP and the company is an active participant of the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), which guarantees that the workers receive fair salaries and work in a safe and clean environment.
The three pillars that define the core of their business also support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: UN’s Sustainable Development Goals:
Sustainable agriculture, incorporating food safety, traceability and good agricultural practices
Social performance across the value chain, including fair living wages and social protection of workers
Protection of biodiversity and natural resources, focusing on decarbonization and carbon neutrality
The company has an ambitious target to reach decarbonization of operations wherever possible. Where this is impossible, they have committed to a program to protect the rainforest in Ecuador. As a result, the pineapples bear the Rainforest Alliance certificate. This means they are grown according to the high social and environmental standards required by the Rainforest Alliance quality label.
"Being able to implement packaging at source with the benefit that you are using a reusable crate that fits in with sustainability targets," explains Vincent Omer-Decugis. "Reusability plays into the decarbonization of our processes."
The fact that consumers are increasingly aware of the carbon footprint of their shopping baskets is a positive development, believes Vincent Omer-Decugis. "Consumers are looking for supply chains they can trust," he says. "They want more transparent operations. They are demanding more engagements in an environmental and social way and more evidence that they can really trust a supply chain to deliver the best produce."
This consumer trend, Vincent Omer-Decugis adds, will be the main driver for the industry. He estimates that there will be more integration and transparency of the different steps of the supply chain, more cooperation and collaboration between different stakeholders, more impact in local communities. Combined, this will result in better produce for the customer — as well as more efficient ways to protect fresh pineapples, banana and exotic produce.
"The way forward is to ensure close cooperations, long-term contracts and visibility with the growers and the retailers and IFCO, so we have time to develop innovations together. If we don’t have a transparent understanding of what’s happening at every step of the way, then it’s very difficult to run the investment that will yield the innovation needed in the produce."
This approach is what Vincent Omer-Decugis describes as "balanced relations" with all stakeholders along the fresh food supply chain. "Stable balanced relationships are the only guarantees that we can continue to grow and develop in the future and keep on producing and importing and bringing the food to our customers. If the relationship is unbalanced at some stage, then it cannot last."
"When corporate values and strategies align, they pave the way to a perfect partnership," summarizes Vincent Omer-Decugis: "In the context of the fresh food supply chain, it’s complex and requires time. But it’s worth it in the end."
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