Peter Kuilman, director of Red Sun Raisins, shows Vittorio Friedmann (left) of Voicevale and Christine Weiser of Fresh Produce Journal some of the finer points of the raisin grading process

10 Mar 2020 | Article published in IEG VU Agribusiness
By Julian Gale | @JulianFoodNews | julian.gale@ihsmarkit.com
Raisins quality has to start at farm level
Peter Kuiliman, director of the company, remarked: “What we say here is that ‘this is not a raisin hospital. We can’t take a sick raisin here and make it better. It has got to be right from the farm.” Unless the raisin is the right quality coming from the farm it doesn’t matter how good your factory is as you’re never going to put it right.” Kuilman was talking to trade visitors to his factory on March 2. The visiting group comprised trade journalists from the UK and Germany and UK distributors of raisins and other dried fruits.

The trade visit was organised and hosted by Raisins South Africa and its UK marketing and PR representative Red Communications. Red Sun Dried Fruit & Nuts/Red Sun Raisins was established in 2009.

The privately-owned company processes high quality raisins produced along the banks of the Orange River in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. The firm believes that its solid, international marketing network will ensure the development of its business and the continued prosperity of the 250 growers along the Orange River, from whom it receives its raisins.

Kuilman suggested that many consumers are probably unaware that 1.2 million tonnes of dried grapes are produced globally each year and said that he would like to create a “raisin tasting” situation to raise awareness of the various types across origins.

He recalled that in 1997 the single channel marketing system – under which farmers had to deliver their raisins to South African Dried Fruit – was scrapped. This shift gradually led to the creation of a number of processors that continue to operate successfully today.

Red Sun Raisins’ initial annual capacity was 2,000-3,000 tonnes of raisins. This has now reached 15,000 tonnes. “We can relatively easily expand it to 20,000 tonnes,” Kuilman explained. Kuilman observed that there are now seven raisin processors in South Africa.
“We are all extremely competitive against one another and, frankly, sometimes we do more damage to each other than necessary,” he noted. “This is not because of competition to sell the raisins, but to buy the farmer stock raisins. It is always a chase to buy the farmer stock raisins. This time of year, it is actually murderous because you are having to compete against other factories who now are financially strong, giving the farmers the confidence to go along and do business with them.

“I believe that is one of the major reasons that the South African industry has grown to the extent that it has: we’ve got independent, financially powerful raisin processors who are competing with one another for the farmers’ raw material. That gives the farmer the encouragement and the confidence to plant additional raisins.” It is estimated that the seven processors have a combined annual capacity of 90,000-100,000 tonnes.

Kuilman pointed out that raisins are unusual in the South African dried fruit industry as it is not permitted to export raw raisins from the country: they have to be processed in origin.

The Red Sun Raisins plant also takes in product from the Vredendal area, which is about 540 km away in the Western Cape. Kuilman revealed that from Friday (February 29) evening to Monday (March 2) morning the firm had received 72 truckloads of raisins from this region.

“The farmers are not doing too well down there, as far as wine is concerned, so farmers are wanting to pull out wine grapes and replace them with drying grapes, which are specialised for producing raisins,” he said.
The lifting of a dam in the Clanwilliam region (which is located on the Olifants river) will create an additional 5,000 hectares of land, of which 1,000 ha is expected to be allocated for raisins. If this latter estimate proves accurate, that would deliver another 7,000 tonnes of raisins, Kuilman calculated.

“The need for additional capacity in the industry is there,” he said.

The Western Cape has two other main grape producing areas. South African currants are grown in the Western Cape, benefiting from the relatively cooler temperatures in this region.

South Africa has three principal green seedless grape varieties used for the production of raisins: the sultana type, which is the same as the US Thompson; the Merbein, which is a originally from Australia; and the Selma Pete, a newer variety which ripens early in the season.

“Farmers like to have three different varieties if they have their farm well planned,” Kuilman noted. “Selma Pete for early production. Then you will have the sultana or the Thompson variety for the middle production and the Merbein for later production, because they ripen last. The Merbein, as a general rule, are more resistant to rain. So the chances that rain will come along are more likely late in the season and the Merbein is more capable of withstanding the effects of rain.”

Kuilman explained that 90% of South Africa’s raisin production is from medium sized seedless grapes.

A Thompson grape typically takes two-and-a-half weeks of sun drying to become a raisin.

Sultana grapes are dipped in potassium sorbate and coated with fruit drying oil (normally sunflower seed oil) to protect the grape from moisture loss and ingress and remove the natural wax coating of the grape so that it can be sun dried in five days. This is known as the lye process.

“The water escapes much faster and it is a lot more efficient. But there are drawbacks: they sugarise because the skin is thinner and it is more tender product, so if you are putting it in a mix with nuts the water will easily escape from the sultanas and spread to the nuts,” Kuilman said.

Typically, nuts have a moisture content of 2-4% whereas sultanas will have 15-16% moisture.

South Africa looked set to produce 25,000 tonnes of Golden sultanas this year, but due to rainfall this volume is likely to be some 5,000 tonnes lower now, Kuilman suggested. Rains damage the cap stem of the grape and this becomes evident when the sultana is sulphured.

“A lot of the grapes today which were going to go to Goldens are being made either into WP sultanas or Thompsons,” Kuilman said.

He noted that supermarkets do not want the Flame variety of fresh grapes as they feel this has issues with colour and they prefer some of the newer varieties. However, the Flame type produces a “delicious” raisin, Kuilman observed. Hence, the focus has shifted to producing raisins from this variety as opposed to table grapes.

Once the raisins arrive at Red Sun’s state of the art facility they are thoroughly inspected, sorted and stored at an ambient temperature until it is time to process them. The processing line consists of a number of phases to ensure the best quality product.

The facility comprises 18 different warehouses for storage. Raisins that have been sorted after rewashing are then fumigated for three days. The process of washing the raisins used a total of 40,000-60,000 litre of water per day and the company spends an average of ZAR13,000-14,000 (USD615-662) each month on this process.

Samples are taken from every tonne produced and there is a thorough grading process under laboratory conditions.