Interview with Alexander Pfeifer and Hannes Werth of VOG Products

26th November 2020

It is a proud moment for everyone involved, because the 100% FSA 2.1 Gold equivalence gives us the possibility to show consumers that our apples are not only safe but that our leading edge in production is also sustainable. 100% GOLD level sustainable in fact!”

SAI Platform member VOG Products are one of the world’s leading fruit processors, suppling the food and beverage industry with products such as juice concentrates, NFC juices, Purees, IQF fruits, solid pack fruits and fresh sliced fruits. Producing roughly 1.8 million tons of apples per year, VOG Products have a long history of over 30-years in sustainable farming.

After recent verification of FSA Gold level across 13,500 apple producers, SAI Platform met with VOG Product’s Alexander Pfeifer, Raw Materials Controlling and Hannes Werth, Sales Manager to talk about their inspiring journey towards continuous improvement and their leading role in sustainable apple production.

Can you tell us more about VOG Products and the farmers that you work with?

We were founded in 1967 at Leifers which is in the Trentino -Südtirol region, in the very north of Italy. Our 13,500 apple producers are grouped into 4 producer organisations for the fresh market and in 1 producer organisation for the processing part (VOG Products). The average size of our associated farms is about 3.2ha, so, not really comparable to most other apple producing regions around the world. So, to be competitive with the other producers around the world we need to be vanguard all along the supply chain. Therefore, sustainable farming is well integrated into our production.

We always thought that our production standard must be one of the highest in the world, and during the verification process we had that confirmed. It is a proud moment for everyone involved, because the 100% FSA 2.1 Gold equivalence gives us the possibility to show consumers that our apples are not only safe but also our leading way of production is also sustainable. 100% Gold level sustainable in fact!

How is VOG Products working on sustainable farming? Why is it important to you and what are your goals?

In our region, farmers are producing apples mainly for the fresh market and about 20% of the crop is destinated to processing. This implies that we start of course with a very high quality of raw material that has been produced according to very strict guidelines that even surpass current legislation. For example, our special internal programme makes sure that the farmers are committed to using just a fraction of pesticides that would have been allowed according to European legislation.

Implementing stricter producing guidelines has a long story in our region. For over 30 years our producers have been using the integrated production guidelines. Those where fixed for the farmers that were organised into working groups composed by the local consulting organisation, the local research institutes, the marketer and the local farmers’ associations and finally approved by the national government agency. It is indeed quite a laborious job bringing everyone together, but our story shows, that working together on a very technical level is more successful than simply setting guidelines.

For us and our region it is crucial to produce according to sustainable principles since agriculture is the main income source for the people living here and this has been the case for generations. We are talking about small family run farms and so it is our primary goal to secure a future also for the generations to come while giving consumers the guarantee that our produce is sustainable.

The GLOBALG.A.P.-FSA Add-On has played an important role in demonstrating sustainability performance on-farm for VOG, why did you choose this specific route?

There are of course different routes to obtain FSA verification. In our case we were a slightly penalised by the fact that we are based in Italy and Italy has not been considered in the benchmarking despite other countries with some lower agricultural standards having been approved.

As more than 80% of our producers are GLOBALG.A.P. IFA and GLOBALG.A.P. Grasp certified the decision to select the GLOBALG.A.P. FSA 2.1 module was clear. The high level of production standard fixed by the guidelines, along with national and regional laws and the numerous GLOBALG.A.P. IFA and Grasp certified producers, together made it quite easy to confirm the GLOBALG.A.P. – FSA 2.1 add on Standard. We now think this is a stronger guarantee that we can give to consumers and our customers than simply applying a benchmark.

We know that you achieved FSA Gold level, a big congratulations for that, how difficult was it for you to demonstrate that your farmers operate at this high level?

This is a really important point. The tricky thing for us is and has always been to demonstrate to the world that the way our apple growing is organised in our area is something truly outstanding and unique in this sector. It is unique for the standards applied and unique also for the approach and relations with the people in our region and to agriculture.

Now, we have the FSA Gold verification, we can use it as an instrument to tell the world just how good our standard is and the values that we can guarantee to consumers. Even though, we knew about the high standards of our farmers, for us the most challenging part was to create a “unique language” and to align all of them in order to apply the standard of the FSA verification.

How does this achievement and your ongoing work on sustainable agricultural practice create commercial value for VOG?

I think this is a very good question as in the end everything needs to bring some value to the people. Producing according to sustainable principles involves of course a lot of work from each and every single farmer and this hard work should also be remunerated. In the end sustainability is also about financial sustainability which allows farmers to go on with their work and guarantees their families an income that enables them to continue their farming business.

Sustainable products like our products are more and more requested by consumers. The important thing that I can see is that consumers are not satisfied to just see the statement “sustainable” on the packaging. They really want to know and to understand whether the different claims are respecting the reality.

This is a development that for us is really important since we are gaining from this more conscientious consumer in the way that we really can prove that they get what we promise. Here we have a big advantage thanks to the way we are handling and tracing the whole supply chain from farm to fork if we can say like this.

Also, as a supplier of semi-finished products to the food and beverage industry this is a real added value that we can guarantee to our customers and in the end also to the consumers buying the products in the supermarket. I think this makes our products unique and gives us and our customers accordingly a competitive advantage and a way to diversify within the industry.