Rush to sort out quality problems

Zespri is in the midst of a hastily major review of the sudden drop in the quality of SunGold kiwifruit over the past season.
CEO Dan Mattison said: countryside news The quality of last season’s fruit is the worst he’s seen in two decades. He says that others in the sector, who have seen the product in overseas markets, told them it was the worst they had seen.

Meanwhile, Zespri heard feedback from customers that the fruit is soft and in some cases damaged.

“Our customers say, ‘Hey Zespri – this fruit is not up to your normal standard,'” says Matheson. “Now our job is to solve the problem.”

He says there are a number of factors contributing to the deterioration in fruit quality.

At the core of this is the acute shortage of skilled people due to the Covid pandemic. Matheson says the industry has struggled to get workers — whether RSEs or backpackers — due to border closures. There were no backpackers in New Zealand in 2022.

“We had a few residents left in 2021, but by the time we got to 2022 there weren’t any.”

Mattison said countryside news The problem is not only that there are enough people to pick the crop; The problems started when the farmers were preparing the crop because they lacked the staff to trim the vines and do all the other preparation work, then not the staff to get the vines in good shape. Last season, he says, there was a lot of damage to the horse due to nicks and breaks on the fruit as well as during post-harvest storage, cold storage and then during transportation.

“It does develop rot and other things on the fruit and that’s very dangerous. While there has always been seasonal fluctuation, that variance has been much greater than what we’ve seen this year,” he adds. “Dealing with kiwi fruit is a very delicate issue as a little bit of nick can cause great damage to a piece of kiwi. It must be handled well from the orchard to the consumer.”

Aside from all the problems with last season’s kiwi fruit harvest, Matheson believes there has been a gradual decline in the quality of the fruit over the past few years, mainly because it has become softer. He says, Chile – which also grows kiwi fruit – suffers from the same problem and climate change or weather events are also possible factors. He says the weather events definitely didn’t help.

Matheson adds that the general staff shortage has been exacerbated by the rise in Covid cases, which has led to higher rates of absenteeism.

He says some of the problems can be traced back to growing practices, as farmers focus on how to maximize yield in their orchards — possibly at the expense of quality.

Review

The good news, Matheson says, is that despite the quality issues, there are still plenty of good fruit hitting the market.

He says there is strong customer demand and Zespri’s pricing position for SunGold in the market, which is very positive.

“Customers want more of our products but we have to go back now and make sure we have consistently good quality fruit, as we did before Covid.”

The review is already underway and Matheson says it will be extensive and will examine all possibilities.

He says the farmers at Zespri AGM have agreed to the review and many admit they need to do better. He says farmers understand the importance and value of the brand and want to protect that. Mattison said countryside news The hope for the 2023 season is that there will be more RSE workers and in general people available to work in the industry.

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