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Mastronardi Produce Wins 10th Food Quality Award
Innovation and sustainability are key ingredients of a proactive approach to protecting the food supply
by Peter Gwynne
An innovative approach to research and development. Strong support for environmental protection and sustainability. A powerful commitment to food safety and quality. Dedication to customer service and satisfaction. Those ingredients earned Mastronardi Produce, a distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables, the 10th-annual Food Quality Award.
Sponsored by DuPont Qualicon, the award was presented by this magazine at a reception in Washington, D.C., on April 20 during the Food Safety Summit Expo and Conference.
“Recognizing companies like Mastronardi Produce for taking a proactive approach to protecting our food supply is something we look forward to each year,” Marcos Cantharino, global business director of DuPont Qualicon, told attendees at the award ceremony. “As recipients of the Food Quality Award, these companies exemplify commitment in action.”
“We have a moral and ethical obligation to do the right thing and always strive for the highest standards of food safety and food quality,” said Joseph Darden, Mastronardi’s vice president for food safety, in accepting the award on behalf of the company. “And when it comes to sustainable practices, from the growing stages to the packaged product on the shelf, our company reuses, reduces, and recycles at every opportunity.”
Company President Paul Mastronardi also emphasized the theme of food safety. “Mastronardi Produce is committed to food safety and food quality,” he said. “We have a solid team of dedicated professionals leading our food safety department and maintaining the programs that continue to keep us ahead of the game. Our goal is to provide the highest level of food safety and quality and to continuously exceed government requirements. Our mandate is to constantly be proactive.”
In earning the 2010 award, Mastronardi Produce joins a distinguished list of previous winners, including Michigan Turkey Producers, Fieldale Farms, West Liberty Foods LLC, Hormel Foods, Beef Products Inc., Tyson Food Safety and Laboratory Services, SYSCO, Franklin Foods, Hygaard Fine Foods Ltd., and East Balt Commissary.
What was the most important facet of the winning entry for 2010? “I think it was the overall demonstration of our unwavering commitment to food safety, sustainability, and customer satisfaction, while maintaining competitive business results when there was economic uncertainty,” Darden explained. “Mastronardi Produce has continued to grow its business. We have a strength embedded in our corporate values and culture. We have a dedicated staff and a company driven by business excellence. All these things came together.”
The judges recognized the value of Mastronardi’s innovative application of emerging technology. As one put it, “There has been significant investment in cutting-edge technology and innovative systems. Performance improvement was evident through quantifiable results with strong environmental impacts. All aspects of the business appear to be aligned towards producing high-quality, safe food within a sustainable environment.”
Based in Kingsville in the Canadian province of Ontario, Mastronardi’s main business focuses on year-round distribution of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, along with specialty and fresh organic product categories, distributed under nine brand names. The company also distributes fresh seasonal eggplant and strawberries. Last year, Mastronardi added a variety of new vegetables and fruits, from asparagus and spices to melons and pineapples, to its product range.
Owned by the same family for four generations, the firm has distribution centers in Michigan, Florida, California, and Canada and greenhouse facilities in Illinois, Colorado, and Canada. Those locations provided Mastronardi Produce with sales of more than $400 million last year, about 80% of them in the United States.
Investment in the research and development and equipment necessary to introduce new technology on a continuing basis is a major focus for the company. In addition to overseeing all aspects of the safety and quality of its products—“from farm to fork”—the food safety department undertakes regular capital investments. The introduction of new technologies and extra products “is part of the long-term business plan; it’s critical to our strategy and part of the passion we have,” Darden explained. “It’s what separates us from the competition and part of what we are—constantly being on the leading edge of new technologies, being more efficient with less cost, and being more innovative.”
Seeking the Best Fit
How does the company stay ahead of the curve in determining the need to introduce new technology? “We’re blessed to have people in the management team and owners who are visionary. They are always looking for a best new fit for Mastronardi Produce,” Darden said. “We also have staff who do a lot of traveling throughout the world to keep us informed of developing technologies and to build networks with technology professionals. Companies are contacting us even at the development stage of new technologies. We’re constantly trying to find something new.”
In 2010, new investments in technology included three projects with significant long-term value. These were an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, North America’s first carbon-negative greenhouse, and a system for vertical rearing of crop-bearing plants called the TerraSphere project.
Mastronardi’s significant growth in sales and market presence over the past half dozen years stimulated the need for a 21st-century approach to ERP. Executives realized that the company’s existing inventory management system had become outdated, cumbersome to use, and increasingly unable to handle the huge amount of data that the company receives on a daily basis. “We needed to upgrade to a more sophisticated system,” Darden recalled. So the company invested more than $1.5 million in an inventory management system from Toronto-based JustFoodERP. According to Mastronardi, this open system “is highly customizable and has limitless possibilities for us to create reports and set up in-house applications to accommodate any new or up-and-coming food safety requirement or initiative.”
Implementing the system required significant effort. “We phased it in over time,” Darden said. “We had to train our information technology group and all staff who would work on the system on a daily basis. Training everybody was a huge part of the implementation of the system. We did the lion’s share in 2010; now we’ll be building modules and adding on to the program to continuously improve it.”
Another new initiative represents a direct response to Mastronardi’s continuing emphasis on environmental sustainability. That emphasis emerged well before 2010; the company uses state-of-the-art European environmentally controlled and enclosed greenhouse technology to produce consistently flavorful vegetables year round while producing lower amounts of greenhouse gases than traditional techniques. The biologically controlled environment uses bees for pollination and beneficial insects such as ladybugs, rather than pesticides, to control harmful bugs.
That general approach had stemmed from a corporate commitment that began in the early 2000s. “It started with talk at management level about being in tune to sustain the environment,” Darden said. “By 2005-2006, we had what we called ‘the green team’ to develop the reuse/recycle/sustainability idea for every stage of our production and delivery—to manage the whole realm of environmental sustainability through all processes in the company.” Thus the company’s packaging procurement department secures packaging with minimal environmental impact and recycles to use less packaging material. And the company’s greenhouses use earth-friendly growing media like waste coconut husks—and 50% less water than fields in the open. The greenhouses also use recycled ingredients in alternative fuels, such as wood shavings, that would usually end up in landfills.
Last year, however, a new opportunity emerged to ramp up environmental sustainability. The company learned about a fertilizer manufacturing plant in Sombra, Ontario, owned by Terra Industries, that released carbon dioxide and heat as byproducts. Those two products, of course, are essential for the growth of plants in a cold environment.
“So we created a greenhouse facility adjacent to the fertilizer facility,” Darden recalled. The Envirofresh Produce Inc. facility uses the Terra Industries’ byproducts at no cost. Carbon dioxide passes through a heat exchanger to produce hot water that is stored in a five million-liter tank and distributed in the greenhouse. “By harnessing the CO2 and heat of Terra Industries, we were able to use byproducts that would have otherwise been released to the atmosphere,” Mastronardi’s award submission noted. “It was ambitious and continues to be,” Darden said. And there’s more to come. “It’s in production, but we’ll continue to plan more acres of greenhouse,” he continued. Having invested $21 million to build the 23-acre first phase of the project last year, the company plans to spend more to triple the acreage by the end of next year.
Doing More with Less
A different innovation from last year addressed the issue of making more with less—more produce with less space. “We’re trying to look at opportunities,” Darden noted. “We know how to produce food today, but how about the future? We’re trying to find ways to produce food locally at higher volumes in smaller amounts of space with reduced amounts of water and less fuel and fertilizer without pesticides, thereby creating jobs.”
The vehicle for that is the TerraSphere project, which maximizes the use of space by growing crop-bearing plants vertically. The project, which is based on research initiated in 2009 and is located in Romulus, Mich., uses technology similar to that applied to Mastronardi’s hydroponics systems but with only artificial light and indoor buildings.
So far, the company has invested more than $3.4 million in the project. Although it remains in the research stage at present, management expects to take it to market within the next few years. At that point, it could spark a minor revolution by applying the local food concept to large cities.
“The whole environment here is huge,” Darden said. “The idea is to produce food in urban areas—perhaps in buildings no longer being used, with totally confined environments and artificial light. Say you can produce food in Detroit right next to a distribution center; you would save on fuel for food transport.”
Using less fuel would plainly help to save the environment. And the reduction in time between greenhouse and store shelf would increase the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet another benefit would come from the extra job opportunities in inner cities made possible by TerraSphere-style projects. Mastronardi “feels that this concept is the new wave of food production in the future,” the award entry stated, “especially as fuel, packaging, and transportation costs continue to rise in years to come.”
No to GMO, Yes to Organics
Last year the company demonstrated its sensitivity to environmental issues with two other decisions. It joined the Non-GMO Project, which allows it to give definitive proof to its customers that its produce is not tainted by genetically modified organisms (GMOs); Mastronardi listed 34 non-GMO verified products in 2010 and has added eight this year. The company also chose last year to have some of its products certified as organic.
Those decisions came in response to customers’ requests, many of them presented through the corporate website. “Early in 2007-2008, we noticed that one-third of the inquiries on the customers’ section of the site asked if we produced genetically modified products,” Darden recounted. “People assumed that we were using GMOs to create such appealing products. We felt we needed to address that. So we got on board with the non-GMO organizations starting early in 2009.”
Requests for organic certification also came from customers. While the company is unlikely to go to 100% organic production, it decided to pursue certification for two of its facilities. To obtain that certification, Mastronardi chose to use Proxy-Serv15 as a food-safe sanitizer for application to processed and unprocessed fruits and vegetables, as well as equipment. Similar to household peroxide, this compound quickly dissociates into water and oxygen, leaving no long-term residue.
Mastronardi has also set out to obtain Safe Quality Foods (SQF) certifications to illustrate its continuing compliance with food safety and quality standards. “Our plan was to do a phased-in approach, Darden explained. “Starting in 2007-2008, our plan was to start with a couple of facilities at lower level SQF, get familiar with the program, and, once we did, to expand it over all our facilities. Now we just want to maintain those certifications and improve on our practices and standards.”
Training and Monitoring
The quest for certifications indicates the critical importance of food safety and product quality for any potential winner of the Food Quality Award. “We have a very strong commitment to them; it’s one of the cornerstones of our corporate values,” Darden said. “We have continuous training of staff. We also measure—as well as monitor—our progress. We’re constantly challenging ourselves and trying to improve.”
The company’s budget illustrates that commitment. Darden’s food safety department received an increase of 12.1% in its budget last year and expects to receive 6.4% more this year. The department’s costs include the fees for participating in online information tracking databases that enhance the company’s ability to recall products rapidly as needed and to keep in touch with customers about the certifications of the supply chain, products, and services.
Much of the investment in food safety and quality goes toward training employees. Mastronardi trains each new employee on his or her arrival and provides refresher training at least once a year. Implementing and maintaining the SQF certifications last year took up a significant amount of training time, as did implementation of the JustFoodERP system, also introduced last year.
Effective training should result in positive reactions from customers. That happened for Mastronardi Produce in 2010, as illustrated by the rejection rate of its products by customers dissatisfied with quality, safety, or service. That rate fell from 1.38% in 2009 to 1.05% last year, even as sales increased by 15% and the company’s warehouses and distribution centers were transitioning to a new quality tier of SQF certification. The figure for 2010 fell far below the rejection rate of no more than 1.5% demanded by Mastronardi’s top-tier clients.
Customers and employees are not a corporation’s only stakeholders. “Community support is a very big part of the Mastronardi family and the culture of Mastronardi Produce; we’re very proud of it,” Darden said. “Every year the company contributes to local charities and supports local communities through charitable organizations and causes. Also, we contributed well over a million pounds of produce last year to local food banks. One local charity said that over a million people could be fed as a result.”
No effective company wants to rest on its laurels. Mastronardi Produce continues to research new ways of improving the quality of its offerings. One typical example is the ready-to-eat (RTE) packaging facility completed early in 2010 following an investment of $2.3 million. The facility’s current objective is washing whole vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, and packaging them as RTE finished products. Those products include a new line, launched in 2010, of “RTE Sunset Kidz” products in 3-ounce single-serving packages. “It’s another way to have a unique packaging innovation and be first on the market with it,” Darden said. “We’re finding another way to appeal to the masses—small children and even the elderly. It’s a very good way to get children to eat vegetables.”
Peter Gwynne is a freelance science writer based in Massachusetts. Contact him at email@example.com.