08 September 2020

TOMRA Food has published an eBook to help potato fresh packers tackle operational challenges intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 19-page publication, downloadable free-of-charge from the company’s website, offers information and advice which will be helpful to packhouses not only now, while market conditions are distorted, but also long after the pandemic has passed.

The eBook starts by acknowledging that the damage inflicted on the potato industry by COVID-19 is not even-handed. While many potato growers and processors have suffered because of loss of demand from foodservice outlets, other growers and packers are thriving because retail sales of fresh pack potatoes have been boosted by the increased frequency of home-cooking. The eBook reports how the monetary value of potato sales at multiple-outlet supermarkets quickly increased by 67%.

The eBook welcomes the fact that consumers have rediscovered fresh potatoes, but also asks whether this newfound fondness will last. Surveys report that a majority of consumers expect to continue cooking more at home after the pandemic, and 63% of Millennials say they will keep on eating the comfort foods they have enjoyed during lockdowns. Even if this should not prove to be the case, the global consumption of fresh potatoes is rising: the growing numbers of people earning middle-class incomes in developing eastern nations, where rice is the traditionally favored staple, are acquiring more varied tastes influenced by western-style diets.

Keeping up with demand by increasing throughputs is the biggest challenge many packhouses have faced during the pandemic. Though this is understandable, the eBook observes that it is also unfortunate: when big potato retailers find that their regular suppliers cannot deal with greater volumes, they look elsewhere for help, and business that gets steered away doesn’t always come back. Another demand-related challenge is the need to take advantage of the opportunity to gain new business, yet some packers lack the operational systems, line technologies, or people power to do this.  

Difficulties recruiting and retaining manual labor, familiar to packhouses for years now, have also been intensified by the pandemic. Fewer people are willing to do this kind of work. In developed nations, most unskilled laborers prefer the security of permanent employment to seasonal contracts; in developing nations, manual laborers are now finding they have more desirable jobs to choose from. Many packing businesses consequently rely on temporary foreign workers, but because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, in many places this pool of labor has dried up.

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Another labor-related challenge is the fear, fueled by reports of outbreaks at numerous American and European food processing plants, of catching COVID-19 at work. This is awkward for pack lines which rely on manual methods for removing poor-quality potatoes and often have people working in close proximity to each other.

Another challenge heightened by the pandemic is the need for operational flexibility. The increased popularity of fresh potatoes means they have become a weapon of choice in the battle between supermarkets to tempt shoppers with special offers, but such offers change quickly from one week to the next. This means packhouses must have the ability to switch the line from one potato type or product specification to another at short notice.  

The eBook also looks at the longstanding needs for consistent product quality, which can be as influential as supply and demand in determining profitability, and improved productivity, because typical pack-out rates of 60-80% mean that packers are losing 20-40% of incoming product. These figures emphasize the value of product recovery. The eBook gives the example of how packing Grade 1 potatoes in clear bags might seem like good business because the product is premium-priced, but profitability can depend on recovering inferior potatoes from the line for sale as Grade 2 product.   

TOMRA Food’s new eBook concludes by explaining how all of these challenges can be solved with optical sorting technologies. As a primary benefit, sorting machines ensure food safety and consistent product quality by eliminating foreign material and unmarketable potatoes from the packing line. But more than this, sorters also reduce dependency on manual labor; make it possible to switch with agility from one product batch to another; improve throughput by identifying line-flow issues; maximize yields by recovering product that need not be wasted; and precisely grade each potato to ensure the product meets the required specifications.