A cork enzyme and a picking machine makes fresh fruit cheaper

By implementing the picking technology developed by Wageningen-based TOP, fresh fruit in salads not only stays fresh longer, but also maintains a higher quality and is more sustainable. It’s no wonder that the technology won an innovation award. However, there was a time when Wouter de Heij, the CEO of TOP, was a bit embarrassed by the success of the picking technology.

“The fresh berries, tomatoes, and grapes used by food companies in products such as salads can pose serious problems for producers. These problems have everything to do with the stems that attach the fruit to the plant”, says Wouter de Heij.

“When the fruit is detached, pickers can damage it a little,” De Heij says. “The cracks give yeasts and molds a greater chance, reducing the shelf life.” Under ideal conditions, fruit is only picked when it is ripe. Natural enzymes then form a cork layer where the stem attaches to the fruit. Thanks to that layer, a picker can easily separate fruit and stem without causing any damage. “We were able to identify and synthesize that enzyme,” says De Heij. “When we brought the enzyme into contact with fruit clusters via nebulization or a water bath, the fruit detached.”

When TOP’s engineers searched for an objective way to determine the added value of the enzyme, a TOP employee improvised a device in his garage using a jigsaw that could shake fruit from clusters. With that method, TOP employees could compare harvested fruit treated with the enzyme with untreated fruit.

“The setup with the jigsaw worked so well that we developed the idea into a harvesting machine,” De Heij says. “That machine vibrates tomatoes, grapes, and berries rapidly and without damage, after treatment with the enzyme, to separate them from their clusters.”

In 2014, TOP’s developed harvesting technology won the Regio Foodvalley Innovation Prize. Dozens of machines now operate in the Netherlands, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and the United States, removing cork-enzyme treated fruit from their stems.

Before TOP developed its combination of enzyme and shaking machine, the food industry was dependent on companies in Eastern Europe that manually separated tomatoes, grapes, and blueberries from their clusters. “The fruits had to be picked in a greenhouse in the Westland, transported hundreds of kilometers to countries with lower hourly wages, and then transported again to a factory in Tiel,” De Heij says. “That’s not sustainable.”

For a long time, De Heij was embarrassed by the success of the harvesting technology developed by him and his colleagues. “We considered this a ‘joke’ within the company,” De Heij says. “This isn’t the kind of technology that wins Nobel Prizes.”

That was almost ten years ago. De Heij has since changed his mind. Now he tells young engineers who come to work at the technology center about the project in great detail, to make it clear what TOP stands for.

“At TOP, we choose practical innovation,” De Heij says. “We don’t use science here to develop fantastic ideas and theories and publish prestigious papers in the scientific literature. Instead, we ensure that someone has one less problem – and the world takes another step forward.”

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