Receiving and Storing Your Products
Most of us in produce feel like we know how to receive and store our product - get it off the truck and into the cooler. And, although that statement does sum up the basics involved, there are a few strategies that when used can save both time and money, as well as give you longer shelf life on your product and remain in compliance with USDA Organic Standards.
Every produce department should have a pulp thermometer that allows you to actually read the temperature of the product that arrives to your dock. With this instrument you will immediately know if there were temperature issues with your product while being transported to your operation.
Immediately after the truck has backed into the dock and the doors are open, the process should begin for getting the product out of the truck and into refrigerated storage. If you need to stage the product outside of the storage cooler (due to space limitations), at least ensure that the staging area is air conditioned and not subject to the warmth from the outdoor temperatures. If possible, begin the inspection process once the product is in the storage cooler. It’s really not practical or realistic to assume that with most orders every box of produce can be inspected. Typically random spot checks are the appropriate way to go. If you have ordered a pallet of Organic Red Delicious apples, for example, you may want to inspect one box from the top of the pallet, one box from the middle and one box from the bottom. If you notice that the pallet of apples contains different labels or brands, then make sure to spot inspect boxes from each label.
Rarely will any box of produce be perfect. If you inspect a box of 56 count peaches, there is a strong likelihood that at least one or two peaches will not be sellable. This type of shrink is reasonable and the expectation is that you factor that type of loss in with every box of produce when setting your retail prices.
As was mentioned under “Receiving” getting the product into refrigerated storage as quickly as possible once off the truck is imperative. This type of hustle can actually add days of shelf life to your product! Above all else, the most important aspect of storing your product is rotation - newer product on the bottom and older product on the top. Just to ensure the effectiveness of your rotation system, it’s good to date everything, so just in case that there are two stacks of broccoli side by side, it’s still clear which is the older vs. newer product based on the dates. The dates should be written directly onto the box using a grease pen or marker. There are exceptions to the rule: newer product on the bottom and older product on top. Take the example of peaches. Imagine that the previous batch of peaches that arrived on Monday were very firm and slow to ripen. The batch that just came in on Wednesday is actually softer and riper than Monday’s batch. In this case you would actually not rotate the peaches to ensure that the riper ones (which just arrived) go out first. Always check and inspect your product, and then rotate based on what you see. Rotation is especially important with organic items, many of which are “hand raised” and harvested close to the peak of ripeness for maximum flavor.
When your produce department carries both organic and conventional product, your storage facility gets a little more complicated. If, for example you have 6 boxes of broccoli in storage (3 of them conventional and 3 organic) and you’re wanting to save space by stacking them all together, the only acceptable way this can be done is by having the 3 conventional boxes on the bottom and the 3 organic boxes on the top. If the conventional boxes were on top of the organic boxes, then the gradually melting and leaking of ice onto the organic product would violate the rules put forth by the USDA as written in the National Organic Standards. If possible, it’s best to keep organic and conventional products as separate as possible while in storage.