As you drive along the Aegean coast of Turkey at harvest time, you see field upon field covered in white sheeting, with anything from tomatoes to grapes laid out to dry in the blazing sun. But you will not spot any dried fruit from one particular supplier to the UK baking industry from the car.
Stuart Matthews, director and joint owner of the UK arm of Unsoy Food Industries, Unsoy (UK), insists his produce is grown and dried well away from any noxious traffic fumes.
Mr Matthews, who has become something of a Turkish dried fruit evangelist, set up Unsoy’s UK branch in August 2002. He now shares joint control with Turkish leather goods baron Huseyin Akdede. Mr Akdede owns Unsoy Food Industries business in Turkey.
In the UK, Mr Matthews is fighting hard to counter prejudices against Turkish raisins. He says they are seen by many industrial users as something of a poor cousin to Californian raisins. US raisins may be justly famous for their high quality, but Turkey has caught up, Mr Matthews believes.
Customers need to open their mind to Turkish raisins, he claims, not least because prices are usually cheaper.
Overheads such as export tax, freight and labour are lower in Turkey, Mr Matthews says. He explains that it can take up to 40 days to ship raisins to the UK from America but only seven to nine days from Turkey.
He adds that Unsoy has helped pioneer standards of production not seen before in Turkey when it launched there five years ago. The company has an automated production factory for raisins and sultanas on the banks of the Gediz River, near Izmir, operating six days a week.
Around 15% of the 22,000 tonnes of dried fruit it produces annually are raisins, which sell at a higher price than sultanas, although this percentage is increasing. The factory boasts technology such as laser scanners and x-ray to ensure product is free from contaminants. Mr Matthews says Unsoy’s mantra is “fewer hands, more control”. “Unsoy introduced a new trend in processing sultanas in Turkey, which others have followed,” he says. “I still don’t think there is a company in Turkey that is able to produce to as high a spec as we are doing.”
The factory is British Retail Consortium-accredited and includes 5,000sq m of processing space and 6,000sq m of warehousing. Unsoy recently expanded its production premises, adding an extra 3,000sq ft holding area for sultanas and dried fruit, after operating at capacity last year.
The firm’s processes include full traceability back to the farm, explains the plant’s quality control consultant, Jack van Leeuwen. All 160 farmers used by Unsoy have signed contracts controlling their use of pesticides in production. Mr van Leeuwen says: “We are the first company in Turkey to have a full working HACCP programme with all the farmers who supply us.”
Unsoy also works with its farmers to promote best practice for controlling the naturally-occurring mould, mycotoxin. Farmers are advised on using the right pesticides, watering properly, and not turning the soil before the grapes are picked.
With these measures in place to uphold quality, Unsoy still has ambitious plans for expansion. It wants to broaden its range to include fruit, vegetables and nuts, as well as oils.
And a new 6,000sq ft factory is being built to manufacture semi-dried products. Semi-dried fruit is seen as a big opportunity, Mr Matthews says. “We are working to develop a high moisture product in Turkey, with a minimum of six months shelf-life; standard shelf-life is a year. We are looking to get moisture levels of 22% through pasteurisation and heat processing. This is compared to normal moisture contents of 13-15%.”
Unsoy also plans to start organic production in three years from land it has bought near its factory. It plans to produce organic sultanas, raisins, tomatoes and peppers, both dried and semi-dried.
Unsoy will look at diversifying into anything that increases the bottom line margin against sultanas, Mr Matthews says.
He explains: “Margins are about 2.5% on dried fruit – it works on volume. We want to bring to the market new products which no-one else has, so that we can dictate the margins until people catch us up. We are looking for things where we can add value.”
He also believes there are opportunities for adding flavourings to raisins and sultanas – such as strawberry, blueberry, orange and lemon. The company also wants to develop its retail side. Unsoy mainly sells in bulk in the UK, but it also supplies one of the supermarkets with retail packs. Some 10% of turnover is retail at the moment.
The company has also recently signed a deal with Netherlands-based YME Kuiper to sell and market a range of seeds and nuts in the UK. And it is looking to expand into new markets, such as Japan, which is a big US raisin user.
It appears that this Turkish raisin missionary’s work has only just begun.
The UK imports 100,000 tonnes of sultanas and raisins a year, much of which is used in bakery and confectionery products.
Grapes destined to become sultanas are dipped in a solution of potassium sorbate, olive oil and sulphur. This opens their pores and gives a light colour to the sultana. The fruit is then dried outdoors in the sun for seven to nine days. Raisins are not dipped; they are cut and dried naturally for 15-20 days.
Worldwide, raisins and sultanas are sourced from countries including the US, South Africa, Greece, Uzbekistan, Iran and Greece. The two main producing countries are the US and Turkey, which both produce around 300,000 tonnes a year, followed by Iran which produces approximately 140,000 tonnes.