Valio supervises the journey taken by berries from the forests into finished products

The unspoiled Finnish forests yielded a good crop of juicy blueberries this year. They are sweet, large and firm. High-quality wild berries are an essential ingredient adding their unique flavours to many Valio products, and to ensure they live up to the high standards set for all Valio ingredients Valio supervises the berry chain from forest to production line.

“Almost half of the berries used by Valio are wild, and more than two-thirds of those are domestic in origin. We favour Finnish berries and other local non-dairy ingredients wherever possible, emphasising quality, availability and overall an economical approach,” says Petri Silfverberg, Purchasing Manager at Valio.

Valio’s principal supplier of wild berries, i.e. blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries, is Polarica based in Northern Finland. They collect most of their berries, if there are sufficient, from the pristine forests of Lapland. Valio and Polarica have worked together successfully in a variety of applications since the 1970s.

“We seek long-term partnerships with our key suppliers, making it easier to ensure the quality and availability of ingredients and develop processes in tandem. We need to know where our ingredients come from, which quite rightly is a matter of increasing importance to consumers, too,” Mr Silfverberg explains.

Only the best ingredients make it into top products

A group of smiling berry pickers greets us in a cabin area at the heart of the imposing forests of Western Lapland. The day’s work is already done. The pickers have transferred the berries from buckets into plastic boxes in the forest and carried those on a trailer under a hood to their place of accommodation. There the team leader checks the quality of the berries, and the boxes are stacked on pallets and covered. Proper picking, transport and storage practices ensure the berries do not get squashed and are protected from sunlight, rain and any dust or dirt. Later that same evening, a refrigerated lorry carries the entire load to a refrigerated warehouse. The berries are on their way to becoming a Valio ingredient, and top class raw materials are an absolute prerequisite for any quality food product.

Polarica controls the quality of the berries it supplies from the forest to the customer. The Thai pickers receive training in their home country and a recap in Finland. The key topics are quality, hygiene, and “everyman’s right” which is the traditional Finnish legal concept that allows free right of access to the land and waterways, and the right to collect natural products such as wild berries and mushrooms, no matter who owns the land.

“Hygiene comprises many facets. There is absolutely minimal contact between the pickers’ bare hands and the berries. They are picked using tools and the employees wear gloves during the weighing process. Hands are disinfected after breaks are taken,” explains Riikka Knuuti, Corporate Responsibility Manager at Polarica.

“Polarica has been developing the berries’ quality chain management in tandem with Valio. Just one improvement over last year is that we’ve been able to give pickers more specific written directions on handling the berries,” says Tomi Helin, Materials Co-ordinator at Valio’s Suonenjoki plant.

“The berries are inspected once more at the Valio plants, making doubly certain that there are no foreign objects among them, such as litter. In addition, we conduct sensory testing, pH and dry matter measurement and, if required, microbiological analyses,” Tomi Helin concludes.

Traceable to the point of picking

It’s peak season for blueberries and Polarica’s Rovaniemi warehouse is buzzing. When a lorry arrives there, the reception operator enters each pallet into the information system, assigns it a code and checks the quality of the berries.

“If required, the berries can be traced back to where they were picked, even as far as to a single Valio yoghurt cup or berry soup carton,” says Tomi Helin.

The berries are frozen soon after arrival, together with any pine or spruce needles, and leaves. That way they will remain better aired and their quality will be higher. Then the berries are packed into containers and stored in the refrigerated warehouse to await further use.

They are cleaned prior to transportation to Valio plants. Cloudberries are cleaned by hand, blueberries and lingonberries by machine. Litter and stones are removed, the berries are hulled, and any types of berry that shouldn’t be there along with unripe berries are removed using a colour sorter. Each batch is X-rayed before packing to ensure there are no foreign objects present.

The berries can be traced back to where they were picked, even as far as to a single Valio yoghurt cup or berry soup carton.

Earnings from berries offer the pickers a higher standard of living

Once the berries have been sent on their way to the warehouse it’s time for dinner. Each accommodation unit has its own chef who also provides a packed lunch for the pickers.

Polarica takes primary responsibility for quality and complies with the ISO 26000 standard in its operations. In addition to the quality of berries and hygienic handling, important themes include the well-being and training of pickers, proper transportation equipment, and caring for the environment. Polarica’s work is audited by an external party.

The majority of Polarica’s pickers come from Northeast Thailand. More than 70 per cent of them have picked berries for the company before. They are informed of the demands and risks attached to berry picking. All undergo a health check in their home country.

“We visit accommodation areas on a weekly basis, and the pickers can anonymously drop ideas for improvement into suggestion boxes. That way we know where we stand and how we can make improvements. Each carload of pickers decide for themselves on the duration of their working day and breaks. They are remunerated on the basis of the weight of berries picked. The pickers earn much more in Finland than they could in their home country, which makes it possible for them to raise their standard of living, and for example their children can go to school,” Riikka Knuuti says.

“Another goal is to improve contact with the local communities where we pick. We have a feedback telephone line, and the number is displayed in the pickers’ cars. The guideline is to stay at least two kilometres away from residential properties.”

Partnering with responsible and like-minded subcontractors

Valio supervises the quality and origin of all the raw materials it purchases, conducting annual audits of more than 30 of its ingredient and auxiliary suppliers in Finland and abroad.

“When we’re looking at potential suppliers, we first assess their ability to meet our needs and criteria. A test shipment is usually supplied before making an agreement. New suppliers are audited according to a specific plan,” explains Tomi.

Where wild berry procurement is concerned, in addition to audits Valio makes control visits to check on the status of the berry supply chain from forest to warehouse, involving also the berry pickers’ working conditions.

“The visits are useful. Polarica values and supports the importance of responsibility and we are able to move forward together,” Petri Silfverberg and Tomi Helin agree.