Investment pays off for herb specialist

Firm reports longer shelf life for herbs, reductions in waste and quicker harvest-to-pack times.

Coriander crop - VHB
Coriander crop - VHB

Sussex specialist herb grower and packer VHB says a recent £250,000 investment in chilled processing and storage has given its herbs a 22 per cent longer shelf life and reduced waste by 11 per cent.

And by adopting a "just in time" approach through the supply chain, the firm says it has also cut harvest-to-pack times by more than a third.

Field-grown herbs that arrive from UK and overseas suppliers at VHB's Runcton site, near Chichester, are first vacuum-cooled by up to 30 degsC then briefly placed in a fogged chamber to replace lost moisture.

They are then packed and dispatched under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, which are altered to suit the needs of different herbs.

Supply chain director Ian Ball said: "Nothing is stockpiled - we want to minimise the time that herbs are with us. They can be in and out of here, then with the retailer in the same day." But he said the dispatch area requires extra air-conditioning to reduce temperatures to 10 degsC.

He added: "We have also tracked our supply chain back to the field and set standards for our suppliers. Retailers will have a better product so will sell more and, in turn, buy more from us."

VHB, which is now known as the Fresh Herb Company, supplies 40 million packs of own-brand cut and bunched herbs to major retailers each year and sells 16 million potted herb plants. This makes it the UK's largest supplier.

The firm also supplies herbs in sleeves with its own branding to cookery schools and food events. A spokesman said: "It's a great way to reach people who are interested in food."

Fresh herb facts Recession and season has affected sales

- The UK market is worth £95m. But according to VHB sales manager Ann Tenison: "It has declined slightly off the back of huge growth because people have less disposable income".

- The market comprises 58 per cent cut herbs, 26 per cent living (potted) herbs and 16 per cent bunched.

- Coriander accounts for more than a quarter of sales, followed by basil, flat-leaf and curly parsley. But this season's poor weather has meant stronger performance for woody herbs such as rosemary, thyme and tarragon, said Tenison.

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