Mildura Fruit Company - Citrus Sorting Line

Agriculture Victoria has announced it will fund an innovative A$770,000 traceability pilot for high-value exports, which will be led by peak industry body Citrus Australia.

The funding is part of the Victorian Government’s ‘Food to Market’ programme, announced by Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture, Mary-Anne Thomas.

“The Food to Market programme is an excellent example of how we are providing timely support to agribusinesses impacted by the pandemic, while capitalising on opportunities to expand into new markets over the longer term,” Thomas outlined.

The Citrus Australia project will utilise leading tracing technology, isotope testing, cool chain tracking and orchard mapping to enhance traceability.

Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock said the aim is to safeguard the industry from fraudulent activity and ensure the integrity of high-end citrus exports is protected.

“By participating in this pilot, we have the opportunity to work through the real world application of emerging technology on farm and through the supply chain,” said Hancock.

“We hope to further progress the integration of traceability into the everyday operations of citrus businesses in the future, whether they be farm to customer marketing, proof of origin or tracing a biosecurity outbreak.”

The pilot project comprises three components, one of which will build on the successful traceability project led by Citrus Australia in 2020.

That pilot traced fruit from Nu Leaf I.P. orchards in Mildura, through the Mildura Fruit Company (MFC) packhouse, and on to international consumers.

Hancock said the new project would further integrate traceability technology at MFC, utilising additional automation to reduce human data entry. Unique serialised GS1 Digital Link-enabled QR code labels will be added to both bags and cartons of fruit making them traceable by sales unit from end to end.

MFC general manager Perry Hill said the producer-marketer-exporter was committed to protecting both the fruit its growers produce and the brands it exports from counterfeiters in overseas markets.

“We see the introduction of unique labelling to our cartons and bags as a critical step forward in our overall protection efforts,” explained Hill.

“The acceptance of QR Codes around the globe through the pandemic provides a unique opportunity for marketers to enhance the customer experiences across all products and markets, and fresh citrus is no exception.

“The adoption of this technology by MFC and the wider citrus industry, provides opportunities for direct and targeted marketing, to show our customers the conditions under which the fruit is grown, and locations where the product they are buying is sourced.”

Hill also highlighted that tracing the product back to its source provides the customer with knowledge and comfort, to make informed buying decisions about the authenticity and provenance of the product.

GS1 Australia will incorporate its traceability standards into the project, enhancing the international compatibility of these supply chains for global exports.

“GS1 standards enable organisations to identify, capture and share information smoothly, creating a common language that underpins systems and processes all over the world,” GS1 Australia chief customer officer, Marcel Sieira, said.

There is also an additional emphasis on increasing the scan rate by overseas consumers. A marketing campaign for premium fruit brands and varieties will be utilised to raise customer awareness.

“In a way the pandemic has assisted our cause here in that people are far more familiar with using QR type codes to access information, so we hope to see a significant increase in scan rates across the supply chain,” added Hancock.

In addition to protecting Australian export brands through the innovative labelling of boxes and bags, the pilot project will include isotope testing of Australian fruit.

“What isotope testing will enable is the ability to differentiate place of origin of Australian citrus fruit using science to prove provenance down to the individual farm and region,” noted Hancock.

“It not only protects them from deliberate food fraud but can provide evidence in disputes from export partners on MRLs, and domestic and international claims of food borne illness.”

The isotope testing component will be conducted by New Zealand isotope science specialists, GNS Science.

GNS Science senior environmental scientist, Dr Karyne Rogers, uses stable isotopes and elemental analyses to understand the transfer of atoms from soil, water and air.

“Navel orange traceability technology compares the different soil and nutrient derived elements from each farm that are infused into the orange flesh during its growth,” explained Rogers.

“The project will undertake origin traceability analysis of Australia’s navel oranges from different growing regions and compare results with navel oranges from other countries.

“The goal is to determine country and regional specific attributes which can distinguish the origin of navel oranges and develop protocols to identify intentionally mislabelled Australian fruit domestically and internationally.”

The third component of the project is the further development of a national online crop mapping platform, which will improve both the accuracy of Citrus Australia’s national crop figures, and traceability.

Citrus Australia said it will work with the University of New England (UNE) to enhance the citrus component of the Australian Tree Crop Map Dashboard, which was recently awarded first place at the global Esri User Conference, the world’s largest event dedicated to geographic information system (GIS) technology.

Craig Shephard, senior researcher at UNE’s Applied Agricultural Remote Sensing Centre, said traceability requires farm-level information.

“We are supporting Citrus Australia to build an ‘industry specific’ map which value-adds the essential information, including block ID, variety, age, etc. to support traceability across the supply chain,” Shephard said.

“Importantly, all information populated in the map by Citrus Australia will be secure under strict sign-in access.”

Hancock added; “Digitising the mapping will help improve the traceability to farm for biosecurity and food fraud related issues and is a step in understanding the flow of citrus from farm to packhouse to market.

“This sets us up well to track and trace issues across the supply chain and is a good model for other industry interactions such as nursery, food waste and transport and logistics when associated with our industry.”