It might pay to know your red onions better

Tom New
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Tom New, managing director of Food Surveys Ltd, spends his working life benchmarking fresh produce quality on retail shelves. Here he outlines what the overall performance in the UK is, how it compares with the continent and which product performs worst of all

Over the course of the past 18 months, we have been examining fresh produce from various retailers against what we consider to be the most typical and standard quality requirements, based on our 20 years of inspection experience.  

The project was conceived after reading one of the annual Which? Reports, telling us which of the supermarkets is best or worst in the country, based on the vote by their readership. We found ourselves asking what the results would be if we carried out a study which was a little bit more empirical, not just in terms of which supermarket ranks highest for quality against their competitors, but for the industry at large.  

As nobody seems to have done the study before, we thought we would investigate, and after a year and a half of data collection we can start to draw some conclusions.

Graph 1

Precisely 10.2% of the sample we have taken did not meet the standard of quality we expected, for one reason or another. That standard is uniformly applied to all retailers examined, and is based on those quality characteristics which we consider will adversely affect the consumer experience.

Graph two

Of those products which we considered to be poor quality, 25% were downgraded due to mould, rots or breakdown, 24% were packs that did not meet the weight requirement and 19% were products showing signs of age, such as dehydration, poor colour or shrivelling.

Graph 3

Delving down into our data a little more closely we can start to see a few more details emerge. It is interesting to note that there is not a great deal of fluctuation between the UK, EU and the rest of the world when it comes to the level of quality at point of sale, but when you separate the data into regions, it is UK produce that fares the worst in our checks, by a relatively small margin.  

Graph 4

Similarly, there is not a great deal of fluctuation through the year on a month by month basis, with the exception of December. Could this be the effect of a pressured supply chain in the build up to Christmas? With only a single set of data so far for that time of year, it is hard to say for sure, but it will be interesting to see whether the pattern is seen again this coming winter.

Graph5

As for the worst performing products, the lowest level of quality seen so far for products with over 20 samples, is red onions. Surprisingly, 28% of all bags and nets of red onions sampled, from a range of different retailers, have not met the standard we set. Over 80% of the affected packs were found either under the stated weight or with rots and mould, and over 85% of the downgraded samples were sourced from within the UK. From this we can see the possibility that the high instance of quality failures in UK quality may be due to specific, and identifiable quality factors in products which would not typically be considered to be problematic.

In terms of how this might affect your own fresh produce business, there are a few suggestions that have come in to my mind looking at this data.  

• Firstly, I know from having seen similar data from all over the UK food industry that the key points here in retail are going to be very similar in foodservice.  

• Secondly it tells me that the 80/20 rule holds as true in fresh produce quality as it does in other walks of life. If you want to have a big impact on the quality of food you serve to your customers, then find that 20% which cause the highest number of problems and tackle those.  

• Finally, it tells me that if you want to make a difference within your supply chain, then getting hold of some good data can be incredibly useful, no matter where it comes from.  

We’d never have thought that red onions had the potential to be a ‘problem product’ until the data told us otherwise.

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