Strawberry fields forever: SVZ on local ties, sustainability and countering food waste

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17 Apr 2018 --- “Mindful” consumption, a key trend this year, is bringing aspects such as sustainability and traceability further into the spotlight. Consumers are becoming more demanding of not only the health side of their foods, but also their provenance. Within this space, Dutch fruit and vegetable processing company SVZ is seeking to leverage its ties to local farmers and experience in promoting sustainability to stay at the forefront of the industry. FoodIngredientsFirst visited the company’s processing plant and a number of affiliated farmers in Almonte, Spain, and caught up with Sustainability Manager Jobien Laurijssen.

With burgeoning demand from the food and drink industry, especially beverage manufacturers and dairy processors, SVZ has announced a three year investment program at its facility in Almonte. Beginning with the commission of a new puree concentrate line and improvements to SVZ Almonte’s filling area, the company has recently completed the installation of additional freezing capacity in time for the summer 2018 strawberry season.
 
Click to EnlargeWith an annual turnover of €180 million, SVZ’s portfolio includes a range of vegetables, tropical and red fruit, picked from locations in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Strawberries constitute a large percentage of SVZ’s red fruit portfolio and are sourced from a network of 60 growers in the Spanish Huelva region, where the fruits are processed at source into purees and puree concentrates. Approximately 57 percent of SVZ’s products are destined for the premium juices and beverages segment, while 19 percent goes to the dairy and ice cream segment.

SVZ plans to increase its Almonte capacity from 12,500 to 20,000 metric tons annually. The development will also support the company as Almonte’s product range expands to include raspberries and blackberries as well as vegetables like bell peppers, cucumbers and zucchinis.
 
“Demand for natural and sustainable fruit and vegetable ingredients is growing exponentially throughout Europe and we constantly invest in our capacity, expertise and growers to ensure we remain at the forefront of the industry,” says Anouk ter Laak, SVZ’s CEO. 

“We have been processing in Almonte for over thirty years, meaning we have an enviable supply chain and superb knowledge of the region, and its unique characteristics, which we can leverage to serve our customers even better in the future. Our facilities are obviously vital in maximizing the freshness, nutritional quality and taste of our ingredients as well as our ability to deliver quickly to customers throughout Europe and beyond.”

Sourcing goals
In November last year, SVZ committed to 100 percent sustainable sourcing by 2030 by signing the Sustainable Juice Covenant, with an intermediate goal of 75 percent sustainable sourcing by 2025. 

“We see that sustainability is getting more and more important to our customer,” Laurijssen tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “We have always had customers who were really dedicated to sustainability, but we see this moving more to the mainstream. Our customers have a lot of questions for us about traceability, for example, because the end-consumer, especially Millenials, are more aware, want to know where their products come from, clearly read the label. Moreover, they do not always just trust what’s written on a label, they want to really dive into it.” 

SVZ’s sustainability strategy is based on three pillars, Laurijssen explains. “The first involves sustainable sourcing. Even though we as a company do not own farms, we feel a responsibility to make sure that the products that are grown [at the farms SVZ sources from] are grown in a sustainable way. The second pillar revolves around our own operations and the environmental impact of our operations. We have programs in place to address energy saving, waste- and water reduction,” she says. “The third pillar revolves around people; the responsibility we have towards our own employees but also toward customers and end-consumers.”

Taking Almonte as an example, SVZ has been working for a number of years on projects on water efficiency and irrigation. This project, coined Donana, has as main objective “the training of growers on the newest [agricultural] techniques, to ensure the most efficient practices and highest yields.” The program began on a pilot scale, but in recent years SVZ has joined forces with other companies operating in the area, including Coop Switzerland, Danone, Iberfruta, innocent drinks, Marks & Spencer and Tesco, to increase the impact of the program. Within the strawberry industry, improvements to cultivation techniques include the use of so-called tabletop growing, whereby the plants are grown in raised, enclosed tray systems, which ensures a more efficient use of water.

Click to Enlarge
Pickers separate strawberries for the fresh market (top) and industry (bottom).

However, efforts to contribute to sustainability go beyond water conservation and pest reduction practices. The issue of food waste and so-called “wonky fruit and vegetables” has caught the imagination of the public, with consumer groups calling for major retailers to also offer “less-than-perfect” produce in their aisles.  

However, in the example of the strawberry farms from which SVZ sources in Spain, around 85 percent of the yearly yield is destined for the consumer marker, while a further 15 percent of strawberries that do not fit the fresh market bill in terms of shape or size are sourced by the company for its portfolio of purees and juices. In Huelva, SVZ takes between 60 and 70 tons of strawberries deemed unfit for the fresh market. As such, the company arguably plays a pivotal role in reducing food waste.

“In this part of Spain strawberries are mainly grown for the fresh market, the fact that we as a processing company work with these farmers makes sure that the strawberries that are for example odd-shaped [are put to good use], is a sustainability effort in itself,” Laurijssen notes. 

Reaching 100 percent
So, what are some of the challenges in reaching that 100 percent sustainable sourcing goal? 

“As a processing company, we are sourcing directly from growers, and have close connection to the growers, so they trust us and we are able to make a difference on the agricultural side,” Laurijssen says.

“One of the difficulties [in reaching 100 percent sustainability] is that proving that all your suppliers are 100 percent sustainable involves certification. We as a company work in Eastern Europe with many smallholders. Many small farmers may not be sufficiently organized [to attain certification, meaning that] we have to put resources into this,” Laurijssen notes. “We have a dedicated agronomist team working with these suppliers to train them, and get them ready for certification. So its different types of suppliers, the supply chains in our industry are complex and especially on that part, you have to put in a lot effort.”

EcoVadis 
The company's efforts appear to be paying off, as it has been named the best CSR performer in the food and beverage category for a second time in a row by EcoVadis. The awards recognize companies partnering with EcoVadis that demonstrate sustainability and sustainable procurement excellence, and are driving progress around the globe. The awards cover several categories, including: stakeholder engagement, supplier engagement and supplier portfolio CSR performance improvement. 

By Lucy Gunn, in Huelva, Spain.

 

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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