One of the most exciting moments in our produce jobs is when we get to visit the farms and spend quality time there. For consumers we don’t always get a feel for the realities beyond the display, the difficulties, the challenges and the obscene amount of really hard work that goes into everything from pre production to shipping across borders! We wanted to give you an inside peek into the pack house and all that it entails, including the infamous HOT WATER bath! Our in house mango guru, Nissa Pierson has spent a good portion of the last 10 years visiting mango orchards, pack houses and working with growers to optimize the process, there is not a better person to give us the scoop!
A Lesson in Empaque
When I look back to my first visit to a mango-packing house, I have to look back about ten years ago to a little shed in Michoacán. This was well before a lot of the problems with drug cartels, when traveling there used to be both safe and a great deal of fun. It was nothing like I imagined and super archaic compared to most the packing houses I had visited world wide. I realized at that time that mangoes were in a category all on their own. I haven’t been back to Michoacán for about 6 years but I have learned a lot from visiting packing houses large and small, conventional and organic, USA bound Europe bound, Japanese bound and even china bound. I think in the end, my conclusion is, that it is all about the return to the grower, the level of pack house quality and modernization, that is. Most the packing houses worldwide combine conventional and organic and the ones that deliver the best prices and grower returns with the largest volumes tend to be the ones that have the highest level of optimization and even cleanliness.
I once had the opportunity to visit an organic pack house, packing for Japan, which has very strict regulations in food safety and even more stringent requirements when in comes to quality. The difference was profound especially in the small pack house that I visited on my first journey into Michoacán. What I learned is that all pack houses are not equal and the larger ones who pack for more than just the USA are typically the best at delivering quality and consistency of pack.
Most pack houses are owned and operated by large growers but they operate the pack houses typically independently, charging any grower for the “empaque” service. Which is the entire process from field crate to finished “caja” so to speak. The growers who offer this pack service get to make a little more profit than just selling the orchard fruit. Most growers do not have their own pack houses but the tend to stick with the same ones and in some cases even form cooperatives, but that is not as common in mangoes as it is other commodities.
Mango orchards, especially organic ones, but certainly conventional as well, tend to be on the small side and very regional. Most growers do not have orchards in all regions so in essence the money a mango grower makes is only for a very small portion of the season. Take Oaxaca region for example they start producing mangoes in middle to late February and have export quality usually through mid march to early April giving them about two months maximum of mango export opportunity. It’s true they can typically prolong the cycle by selling in the local market which typically have less stringent sizing requirements and can accept a plethora of different quality levels. But the basic point becomes, for a grower there is little opportunity or time to make good money and for the growers in the peak season, bulk of production zones- Nayarit & Sinaloa the markets can be at the lowest and this volume is a key component of the making money equation. In organics the prices have been dropping more and more every year. Consumers want to see the price point closer to the conventional price in order to increase purchases and create attraction. Growers have a very small window in which to capitalize off their crops. Which is why the growers with the packing houses tend to have most the power. The can operate several months of the season beyond simply the production of their own orchards and can make more money packing other grower/exporters goods. Packing houses tend to pack both conventional and organic (separated areas) so they can also capitalize off packing both cv & og. (Make more $) Most packing houses pack more than one brand or label, often you can see many competing brand and labels in the same pack house, often times they are even using the same fruit! What is true is that the larger pack houses tend to have the better facilities and do a better more detailed job in the pack and that is a really important aspect.
The orchards deliver the raw product (mangoes) to the pack house, usually a place on one side where many trucks can fit with docks for unloading. The mangoes are given to the pack house in plastic totes, different colors typically signify organic vs conventional. The raw product has a short report done, weight, quantity of totes and general notes on the orchard etc, which are used for traceability coding. Each crate/lot is tagged with traceability code. From there the mangoes are stored in an ambient temperature – open (usually screened in) part of the facility. The temperature is usually warm but often way cooler than outside, just in terms of shade. The mangoes then move through a washing cycle in a big machine with a wash tank. This is a machine simple yet effective. A big bin with water and often times in the best pack houses a monitored chlorine wash is included. Depending on regulations and what country they are packing for. The mangoes are washed to reduce dirt, latex, staining from dirt or latex and general get rid of the dust and grime just as we would do in our own kitchens! The mango wash tank then leads to an elevator of sorts and a belt takes them through a final brush making sure all debris, dirt and latex is off the fruit. The belt moves through a series of rinse cycles as well as in some cases a waxer. Organic wax is now common and is proven to extend the shelf life. We in the industry in terms of mangoes, typically don’t see any push back considering the peel of the mango is not consumed! Eventually the fruit makes its way through to a conveyor where it goes into first sort cycle, which determines a generic size. The way the size portion of most mango production lines work is by a series of rollers which register weight and width as the conveyor takes it down all the sizes. The rollers in each area are pre determined to move apart when a certain pre determined weights it, starting with the smallest to the largest. As the fruit drops below the rollers they run down individual shoots and “lanes” where workers collect and re pack the fruit into new totes discarding any mangoes that are not clean or good (there are indoor and outdoor totes).
The product then has to move through a USDA packinghouse hot water treatment or the official USDA Hot Water Immersion or Hydrothermal Treatment. The hot water treatment is one of the phytosanitary measures mandated by the USDA on all imported mangoes in order to ensure that there are no living fruit fly or fruit fly larvae in imported mangoes. The only one that can be used on organics and the main treatment used in the majority of all imported mangoes. Basically the treatment works like this; huge USDA approved tanks are filled with water and raised to a temperature of between 115 and 118 degrees F. The mangoes are hoisted in the plastic totes and placed inside the large vats or baths of water. Depending on size they are submerged for anywhere between 90-120 minutes. The process is typically monitored by APHIS (USDA) personal using computerized systems that monitor and record the heat for the duration of the treatment. Once the timed treatment is over the mangoes are removed and have to be placed in a insect free environment in an ambient temperature for at least 60 minutes before being able to move. The mangoes are essentially cooling. There are many industry experts that believe this part of the process is one of the worst. Instead of being able to submerge them in cold water to cool rapidly or put them in a cooler they sit and essentially potentially risk quality damage. There are various people working on the protocol and trying to come up with alternatives as certainly it is common knowledge that this treatment does not support maintaining best conditions for optimal quality. But it is the best option available. In the conventional sector people are experimenting more and more with irradiation treatments
When the fruit gets back to ambient temperature it is collected by size in totes and then goes through a long conveyor line with packers who pack and sort it one more time manually for size, and condition before packing it into it’s final size and box. The boxes are then labeled by size, and variety sometimes they are labeled prior to the pack, depending on the pack house and stamped with the traceability codes for grower and orchard as well as a USDA hot water bath stamp.
At that point the product in most packing houses is put in a cold room that cools or reduces the product to about 48 degrees F. There are some pack houses that do not have cold rooms for bringing down temps and this is really not a good idea. The product needs to be reduced in temperature in order to maintain a good travel and shelf life. After the product is cooled to 48 degrees F. It is loaded on a truck for the border. The trucks typically run about 50 degrees, but again some times truckers in Mexico can try to skimp on reefer temperatures saving money so it’s important ot have really good control over the logistics internally in Mexico to make sure the reefers are running and running cold enough! This ensures optimal shelf life! The entire process above from product arrival to product departure from the mango pack house takes about 48 hours. Depending on the pack house and how busy they are and often how well the USDA complies with their final sign off of each shipment!
The trucks take anywhere from 4-5 days, this would be in Oaxaca, to 12 hours or less form parts of Sinaloa and Los Mochis! The border cross is another post all together! Stay tuned!