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Fruit of knowledge

When it comes to food, the EU considers safety a top priority. The slogan ‘From farm to fork’ describes how the whole supply chain is responsible for guaranteeing food safety. For the first link in the food chain, the growers of food products, this concept mainly translates into quality demands and efforts aimed at keeping contaminants and pesticide residues at acceptable levels. In addition to complying with the legal requirements, many companies have joined independent sustainability initiatives or set up their own, stricter environmental and social standards. All of these requirements and preferences together are usually referred to as ‘buyer requirements’ or ‘market access requirements’. Here’s an overview.

Quality standards
The EU market is not easy to please. You’d think an orange is an orange, but it’s not. In terms of quality standards, an orange may be an orange ‘extra’ class (superior quality), class I, or class II, depending on shape, external appearance, development and colouring. The main requirements established by the EU legislation with regard to quality standards for fresh fruit and vegetables, however, relate to the quality in terms of health and safety, as well as accurate labelling. These standards prescribe that the fruits and vegetables covered may not be rotting or deteriorating, that they must be clean (free of ‘foreign matters’, which could be anything from a piece of glass to insects), free from pests or damage caused by pests, free of abnormal external moisture and free of any foreign smell and/or taste. As of July 2009, the scope of the EU quality standards will be downsized to ten fruits and vegetables, as compared to the present 36 – good news if you find the standards hard to keep up with! Unless, of course, your product is among the ones that will still be subject to the quality standards: citrus, tomatoes, apples, table grapes, sweet peppers, peaches and nectarines, pear, lettuces, kiwis and strawberries.

Maximum Residue Levels
The presence of pesticide residues in consumer fruit and vegetables has been restricted by so-called Maximum Residue Levels, or MRLs. Meeting the limit values set in EU legislation may not always be enough, however, as some supermarkets have set their own, stricter MRLs. This development was triggered by Greenpeace Germany report published in 2007, in which the NGO reported on MRLs that were harmful to health and called on both retailers and legislators to do something about the present situation. German supermarkets were the first ones to take action, but in the meantime their colleagues in Austria, Sweden, the UK, The Netherlands and Denmark have followed suit.

Contaminants, such as heavy metals, nitrates and mycotoxins in fruit and vegetables, can be harmful to human health and have therefore been restricted. Unlike MRLs, contaminants are not a result of what’s added to the crops on purpose, but stem from heavy metals found in the soil where they’re grown, for instance. The heavy metals lead and cadmium are restricted in all fruit and vegetables marketed in the EU. Other contaminants are restricted for certain fruit and vegetables (e.g. nitrates in spinache and lettuce and aflatoxins in maize).

Novel food
Novel foods are foods not marketed in the EU before 15 May 1997 (when the Novel Food Regulation entered into force) and as such also include ‘exotic’ foods which though quite possibly part of traditional cuisine elsewhere in the world are not known in the EU. All novel foods put up for entry into the EU after the ’97 date are subject to the safety assessment procedures established in the Novel Food Regulation. In many cases, this poses a true trade barrier. The good news, however, is that food known in one of the EU Member States before 15 May 1997 is not counted as novel throughout the EU and thus gains market access to the whole EU.
Lucuma, the Andean fruit was suspected of being novel until France stepped in and declared it was familiar with lucuma before ’97. Lucuma was officially cleared by the EU and may therefore be imported throughout the EU.

The market for organically produced fruit and vegetables continues to grow, with many supermarkets offering organic alternatives next to conventional ones. Consumers associate organic with healthier products. Environmental concerns may also motivate them in purchasing organic food. Certification is a must for anyone marketing a product as organic in the EU, where minimum requirements have been established in EU legislation. Many certification schemes, like that of the Rainforest Alliance, cover social aspects as well as environmental ones, or even focus mainly on social issues, such as Fair Trade. Despite its growth, this market remains a niche.

GLOBALGAP, previously EurepGAP, is a management system for Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) in which hygiene measures and procedures are key. Many European retailers work with this system as a means of guaranteeing food safety. It includes a set of requirements according to which producers must work, covering major musts, minor musts and recommendations. Major musts include hygiene risk analyses and documented hygiene procedures for harvesting. Minor musts cover things like the storage of packaging material.

Source: CBI News (July 4, 2009)