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Lettuce Empire

Crafting a Winning ‘Food Safety’ Formula

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Crafting a Winning ‘Food Safety’ Formula

Source:Chien-Tong Wang

The Taiwan Lettuce Village’s modern practices are redefining how to grow, harvest and store fresh produce. After conquering Taiwan, the company’s iceberg lettuce is now making waves on the global stage.

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Crafting a Winning ‘Food Safety’ Formula

By Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 625 )

As anonymous as they may appear, three facilities clad in red corrugated steel standing rather inconspicuously among the back roads of Xing-Hua Village in Yunlin County’s Mailiao Township hold the distinction of being Taiwan’s first refrigerated and frozen vegetable supply chain processing plant, as well as the command center of the Taiwan Lettuce Village.

As the iceberg lettuce season draws to a close, workers inside the plant are busy picking the outer leaves off each head before sending them to the packaging line. Each one is again inspected and verified before heading to the boxing machine.

Between October and March every year, Mailiao Township’s lettuce flexes its foreign trade muscles. “Last year we shipped 900 containers of it,” boasts Kuo Chin Chan, manager of the Mailiao Fruits & Vegetable Cooperation Farm, also known as the Taiwan Lettuce Village.

Dominant at Home and Abroad

The Taiwan Lettuce Village accounts for 60 percent of Taiwan’s annual iceberg lettuce exports, with sales largely to Japan, Korea and Singapore reaching over NT$100 million. Even more remarkable, it supplies over 90 percent of Japan’s imported iceberg lettuce and has become the official winter season production base for Japan’s McDonald’s restaurant chains.

This spectacular performance on the international stage did not just happen overnight, but was slowly and meticulously cultivated over more than a decade. In 2004, Kuo Chin Chan and his younger sister Kuo Shu Fen and his elder brother Kuo Jhong Long returned to their hometown to take over the iceberg lettuce contract production business their father, Kuo Ming-tsuan, had built. They entered into overseas sales by supplying customers in Japan, who suffered from winter produce shortages.

Starting with the shipment of one or two containers and growing to over 900 containers per year, the Kuo family has steadily introduced, step by step, planned production, centralized management and pesticide safety specifications to the contract farming foundation their father established. By contracting for production with guaranteed price purchasing, they managed to significantly expand the production scale.

The area of contract production land currently amounts to 350 hectares, including cooperative partnerships with 150 farmers.

In addition to overseas sales, the Taiwan Lettuce Village supplies the majority of Taiwan’s fast food restaurants with their lettuce. From FamilyMart to Wowprime, and capturing Carrefour, RT Mart and Px Mart, it can claim a full 40 percent of the domestic market.

“The Taiwan Lettuce Village’s success can be attributed to passing various certifications in line with international standards, and to building alliances among small farmers,” relates  Hsu Fu, director of the Office of Food Safety under the Executive Yuan.

In addition to the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) verification, TAP (Traceable Agricultural Product),  the Taiwan Lettuce Village has aligned itself with international standards and regulations and  earned Global GAP certification, making it Taiwan’s first farm to pass the second-stage certification.

Global GAP certification signifies that the produce is fit to be sold around the world. The second-stage certification requires the company to train its own personnel, implement a quality management system (QMS), ensure balance between orders and shipments, and even control seedling germination rates, so as to maintain a reliable supply of lettuce.

The cooperation farm’s computers contain the assorted details of various production plans and processes. Upgraded annually in accordance with the verification/certification standards in effect, they have become a key database to help the Taiwan Lettuce Village to break into the global arena.

The Taiwan Lettuce Village’s production process is reminiscent of a corporate production line. The annual planting season depends on the delivery times specified in the orders. For example, when a customer places an order in August for iceberg lettuce, the Taiwan Lettuce Village will start growing seedlings around September. It takes about 120 days from planting to harvest, so the first batch is usually ready for harvest around November, while the second batch is ready the following January or February.

Each lettuce field has its own ID card. In addition to making pesticide spraying and fertilizer spreading convenient, it familiarizes consumers with the Taiwan Lettuce Village brand.

Contract production zones, marked in different colors on a map in the office, are mostly concentrated in Lunpei and Mailiao townships. Their close proximity makes field management, pesticide spraying, or harvesting easily done all at once, while also lowering the risks of cross-contamination of pesticides between fields. From picking to packaging, everything is controlled within a two-hour time frame to retain maximum freshness.

From piecing together customer needs in the early stages to the current internationally certified methodical approach, “It all comes back to making food safe,” says Kuo Shu Fen. She knows that only safe food and stable quality will keep overseas customers placing orders.

The cooperation farm’s emphasis on safety goes back to 2008, when a Japanese customer asked Kuo Shu Fen to provide proof of TAP status. However, the documentation for Japanese Good Agricultural Practices was practically indecipherable to them, posing a stumbling block.

Finally, with the guidance of the Japanese customer and the assistance of a trading company, the Kuo siblings began recording the front- and back-end management process and provided a production plan, including projected yield volume and places of production. Further, they put together an environmental impact assessment and land risk area report for the Japanese customer.

Adopting Japanese Standards

Chen Li-yang, General Manager of Well Seeds Enterprise Co., Ltd., a long-term partner of the cooperation farm, relates that no one in Taiwan at the time could have truly met the customer’s demands, and that it was the Taiwan Lettuce Village that introduced Japan’s TAP to Taiwan. “Every year, a supervisor was dispatched from Japan, and after five years, the Taiwan Lettuce Village met the Japanese requirements for production processes and supporting measures,” says Chen.

Kuo Shu Fen admits that upon attending classes to help prepare for taking the battle to the international front, she learned that pesticides cause the greatest environmental damage and are the single most important consideration for foreign customers. Accordingly, she and her siblings began instituting pesticide controls.

She even went out and got a pesticide management license to help farmers formulate pesticides. Yet, “our yields fell short as crops were either eaten by pests or ravaged by disease,” she relates. Frustrated, she saw some farmers not spraying according to the schedule , and others mixing in various unregistered pesticides.

In an effort to maintain consistent safety standards, Kuo Shu Fen acted contrary to the established contract production model by getting involved in the management of fields. The cooperation farm organized several teams to conduct pesticide spraying, dispatching workers by means of a computer system and concentrating the spraying over a short period. Workers showed up to their jobs equipped with smartphones provided by the cooperation farm, loaded with a preset spraying program.

An ID card specifying the farmer’s name, land area, and bar code was placed beside each field. The workers swiped the barcode, and the spraying situation was tracked and reported back in real time.

The cooperation farm sent samples of a single batch of lettuce that had been sprayed at the same time to SGS, a global inspection, verification, testing and certification company, for an analysis of the residues of 452 kinds of pesticide to ensure that it conformed with domestic and foreign agricultural testing standards.

Apart from pesticide safety, various countries’ safe production regulations have also begun to stress risk control.

Risk assessments cover soil and water resources for irrigation, including evaluation of water sources, heavy metals, and early-stage crops. They are so rigorous that even the water fountains and packaged water used by workers are subject to testing.

 “These tests ensure the safety of each constituent step,” says Kuo. In order to prevent the produce of different farmers from being mixed up, thus  increasing the risk of hazards, farmers were graded and required to produce proof of their farms’ capacity for quality control. Accordingly, the Taiwan Lettuce Village re-partitioned the packaging facility, installing air conditioning and plastic curtains to block human and airborne contamination.

Cold Supply Chain

Nevertheless, the Kuo family was still not satisfied. Looking further into the future, they were determined to establish a complete refrigerated and frozen vegetable supply chain, keeping the whole process at low temperatures, including the pre-cooling of harvests, storage, logistics and transportation, to reduce damage to the produce and maintain a stable customer base.

They ended up establishing Taiwan’s first refrigerated and frozen vegetable supply chain processing facility, extending the life of iceberg lettuce from a maximum of 30 days to 40 days.

Their reputation spreading far and wide, the Kuo siblings have been invited to set up production facilities in China. China’s advantages of vast capital, low prices, and large market admittedly have Kuo Shu Fen on edge. “If we hadn’t already firmly established ourselves in the Japanese market, we might easily get crushed and pushed aside,” she admits.

Nevertheless, “Given northern China’s winter produce shortages, and the fact that inland transportation is more expensive than marine shipping, we could approach Beijing via Shandong,” observes Kuo Shu Fen, whose mind seems always at work.

The Kuo siblings firmly believe that, as long as there is a fundamental return to safety from the basic level up, while instituting management and cultivation skills and aligning with international norms, Taiwan is capable of creating a fresh produce miracle with its lettuce.

Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman


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