Guest article from Bernie Lager III – Arise Nutrition, LLC
Our company has developed and commercialized many cranberry-derived ingredients. Over the last several months we’ve taken a closer look at aronia; we’ve identified several routes to market made possible by processing the fruit into food ingredients. The available North American aronia supply is small relative to these market opportunities. But, it is large enough to get started!
In food production, consistency of quality is essential. Having discussed aronia with several growers, we recognized there would be great variation in the fruit harvested this year. The best way for us to plan for production was to see that variation first hand.
So, in late August we took the next step with aronia by handling fruit from about twenty five growers in our food-grade facility in Wisconsin Rapids, WI. Our facility handles fresh and frozen cranberries, so aronia was not too much of a stretch. However, this project did involve setting up new equipment, defining standard operating procedures, developing food-safety and traceability records, and acquiring additional temporary staff.
I am sure that many members have seen aronia fruit being cleaned; some of you may have even been here at our facility to see our line run. I’ll describe it for those who aren’t yet familiar with the process.
The fruit lugs are staged for dumping onto a feed conveyor. This provides an opportunity to visually inspect the fruit and maintain a consistent rate for the whole processing line. Following that, leaves, insects, stems and dried-up fruit are removed by a blower. Among all that debris we even found a six-inch praying mantis, which I gladly took home for my children!
The fruit then goes over a de-stemmer – which removes stems from the fruit bunches and from individual berries. Then, individual berries roll down a tilt table; the tilt table sorts damaged and soft berries from round berries based upon how well they roll. The tilt table requires a watchful eye and fine-tuning – especially relative to fruit quality and feed rate.
The berries then are conveyed through a tank filled with an organic, food-grade sanitizer. Besides cutting down on microbiological loads, this tank cleans surface “dirt.” Excess sanitizer is blown off the fruit prior to final visual inspection, packaging and freezing.
The four weeks of aronia cleaning were a challenge and a lot of fun for our production team. I enjoyed meeting many new people that were essential to keeping the line running well. After the first few days, it was clear where people belonged on the line, based upon their strengths. Big Dan was perfect for handling lugs at the feed conveyor. Josefina was fast and accurate at visual inspection, thanks to her previous experience on cranberry sorting lines. And, given their previous jobs at other local food processors, several others were trained to assist in quality checks and cleanup.
Throughout the season we harvested lots that had varying ratios of small, medium and large fruit. In addition, we saw hand-picked fruit and machine-harvested fruit with varying amounts of non-fruit material (stems, leaves and insects). Both of these characteristics can affect the cleaning process, and fruit size can be an important quality attribute for certain downstream processes. As production volumes increase, it will be important to recognize and control for these characteristics of harvested fruit.
Besides size and non-fruit debris, several other quality issues were apparent and are of great importance for the downstream processes. These quality issues included bird/insect damage, sunburn, soft fruit, shriveled fruit, berries from other plants, and spotted wing drosophila larvae. For many harvested lots, the berries that had these quality issues were less than three percent of the lot by weight. However, we did handle lots where these quality issues exceeded 15% of the total weight.
It is not possible to completely eliminate these quality issues. However, it is possible to minimize their impact on the fruit quality overall. When more growers aim for the same quality standard, there will be greater consistency in a larger fruit supply that will allow for larger, more exacting processors to develop and market products to more consumers. As a processor, we are happy to support the implementation of quality standards that are important for this developing supply chain.
We, at Arise Nutrition, are committed to developing food ingredients and finished products that preserve the amazing nutritional characteristics and health benefits of aronia. We are busy building a product line from aronia that includes dehydrated powders for nutraceuticals and infused fruits for healthy snacks. Aronia can do much good in the world and we are excited to be a part of it. We look forward to more interaction with growers, handlers, researchers and others who are working hard to grow this industry in the United States. Learn about Arise Nutrition.