x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Moves needed for longer UAE produce shelf life, experts claim

Companies say temperature control is needed all along the supply chain, from the farm to the supermarket, to prolong the freshness of food.

DUBAI // Food shoppers often complain the fruit and vegetables on offer in shops look past their prime.

Even if the produce appears fine in the supermarket, they grumble that it quickly goes off at home.

The problem is partly due to the amount of fresh food that must be imported and the conditions in which it is kept while on its way to the Emirates.

Produce can be left sitting out in the sun for days, as The National found when it visited a number of markets during the summer.

The result can be annoying and costly - and a health risk.

The number of food-poisoning cases increase significantly in the hotter months, but efforts are being made to improve the conditions in which food is kept at each stage of its distribution.

One change that could be made is air purification, which helps to remove the chemicals and microscopic organisms that start the rotting process.

"Shelf life is reduced due to fungal spores and bacteria, and the fruit or vegetable is affected by an accelerated ripening and spread of fungi," said Abdulatif Al Ayoub, the operations manager at Bioconservacion, which makes air-purification systems.

Mr Al Ayoub said he hoped the UAE would soon adopt the company's filters. Such filters are an industry standard in Europe for extending the shelf life of produce.

"It's a virgin market here when it comes to cold-chain management," said Samer Alwash, the regional sales manager of Sensitech, a company that provides monitoring instruments for temperature-controlled supply chains.

"We'd like to introduce products like ethylene filters and temperature monitors but when it comes to companies investing here, they still like to waive it."

Ethylene is a natural by-product of the ripening process and higher concentrations of the gas cause stored produce to fester.

"It needs to be controlled, from the grower to the supermarket's shelf and the consumer's home," said Mr Al Ayoub.

For that, the air in cold storage rooms needs to be filtered. Mr Al Ayoub said air filtration helped fruit and vegetables last a day or two longer.

The company uses a Retarder, a product that oxidises ethylene.

The system was tested in Spain on plums, tomatoes and mangoes over three weeks. Under normal conditions, a fifth of the mangoes would have rotted within a week. With the filter, none did.

But the concept has yet to catch on here.

"Food safety is changing in the Middle East," said Mr Al Ayoub.

"Five years ago, temperature monitoring was never used in the region, so now our struggle is educating the industry on the importance of ethylene control."

Mr Alwash said: "Growers in the region must go through a learning process.

"The Government should play a role in monitoring the quality of transport, the cold chain and the final product in the supermarket. That's the way to go about it."

Sukhev Singh, the managing director of Food Freshly, a German agriculture and food consultancy, also hopes to help save the UAE's produce from rapid decay.

Mr Singh developed a patent for a technique to extend produce's shelf life by between seven and 21 days.

With the average shelf life often four to five days - half of Europe's - help is needed.

"Pre-sanitising is necessary for all importers and growers," said Mr Singh. "That can be challenging in the UAE because most products are imported, so different kinds of bacteria can enter the country."

The company also uses disinfected water to clean its produce.

"After the E. coli incident that hit us in Germany we had to be extra careful with produce," said Mr Singh, recommending that fruits and vegetables should be stored between 4°C and 6°C.

But with the UAE's scorching temperatures, that can be difficult to manage.

"People here have to triple their efforts in 30°C to 40°C temperatures to ensure food safety," Mr Singh said.