Sysco rule: Keep it cool

Mateusz Perkowski/Capital Press A worker at the Sysco facility in Wilsonville, Ore., inspects boxes of product from Yamhill County Mushrooms, a farm company based in OregonÕs Willamette Valley. As a national distribution company, Sysco is increasingly obtaining food from local growers.

Food distributor works with 'aggregators' on pricing, availability, delivery

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Farmers who want to supply food to the Sysco distribution firm can't just show up at a warehouse with a pickup truck full of produce.

Sysco wants to source food from farmers, but the company doesn't cut them slack for being small or local.

To prevent wilting and other quality deterioration, the company requires that perishable foods remain in a "cold chain" throughout the distribution cycle.

That basically means uninterrupted refrigeration, including during transport.

"If they're not managing it well, I don't want it and neither will the end user," said Randy Gehrig, produce business development manager at Sysco's Portland-area operation.

Sysco works with "aggregators" who coordinate pricing, availability and delivery schedules with farmers, said Craig Watson, Sysco's vice president of agricultural sustainability.

Oftentimes, it's those companies or individuals who invest in the packing and cold-storage infrastructure needed to consolidate the output of several farms, he said.

Aggregators are often brokers or packers looking for a new way to increase their sales to Sysco, but they can also be individual farmers who decide to take on an entrepreneurial venture, Watson said.

"They're viewed as a supplier to Sysco," he said.

Companies that procure food for Sysco must measure up to the firm's safety standards and generally adapt to the existing distribution system.

For example, many of the company's clients are restaurants or institutions that can't handle large containers. So crops often need to be packed in smaller packages to ease handling and storage.

Delivered crops are also expected to be traceable back to the harvest date and farm location, with the information displayed on numbered stickers.

Managing inventories of locally produced food tends to be more complex because the crops often have a shorter shelf life than those designed for longer hauls.

"If it comes in on Wednesday, it better be gone by Friday. It can't wait until Monday of next week. It's too ripe," said Watson. "It's almost like that local produce needs to be pre-sold."

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