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"Fewer heads of iceberg lettuce in supermarkets"

Most of the Iceberg lettuce grown in the Netherlands is not sold in supermarkets as a straightforward head of lettuce. Instead, the lettuce is produced and sold as pre-cut lettuce in small packages in supermarkets or found on the hamburgers at fast food chains. Heemskerk in Rijnsburg, the Netherlands, is one of the companies supplying processed vegetables to supermarkets and the convenience market. During the summer they work exclusively with Paterbroersen BV for their Iceberg lettuce. Dave Smit from Paterbroersen BV and Jogchem van Daalen from Heemskerk talk about their partnership.

Nunhems iceberg variety Elsol

Paterbroersen BV growers are located in Waarland in the province of North Holland. Here they use the four Nunhems varieties Templin, Elsol, Skindel, and Rockin for their 170 hectares of Iceberg lettuce cultivation. “It is important for us that Iceberg lettuce is quickly harvested, has a short stem, and is resistant to red discoloration at the end of the season,” explains Dave Smit. “We also prefer to grow varieties with a long harvest trajectory, so that the harvest can be well-planned.”

Cultivation plan
“We opt for multiple varieties to diversify our risks,” continues Dave Smit. “We often run trials with new varieties from Nunhems. If these perform better and have more advantages compared to the varieties that we are using at that time, we add them to the cultivation plan for the new season that we create every year. We start with small numbers but once we receive positive feedback from Heemskerk, we slowly make the transition to the new variety. Their feedback is important to us.

The varieties from Nunhems have performed exceptionally well this year and the early variety Rockin was a real star. This makes it a good addition to other varieties, because these lettuce heads have good volume at an early stage. Elsol performed very well too and formed a beautiful head throughout the season.”

During the season, Paterbroersen BV supplies fresh Iceberg lettuce to Heemskerk every day.

Paterbroersen BV and Heemskerk have been working together since the 1990s. Mutual trust and open communication form the basis of their success. “At Paterbroersen BV, years of experience have perfected their understanding of what it is that we need,” explains Jogchem van Daalen, Purchasing Manager at Heemskerk. “Iceberg lettuce should not be too compact for optimal processing at the factory. Red discoloration is also an important factor, as discolored lettuce does not look appealing and we do not want to disappoint our customers. Our shared goal is to ensure that our customers are always satisfied. Continuity is therefore important too. You don't want people to order hamburgers and find out that there is no lettuce available. We know that Paterbroersen BV is the right grower to take on this challenge. That is why they are our sole supplier of Iceberg lettuce in the summer. We have complete trust in one another.”

Fast processing
During the season, Paterbroersen BV supplies fresh Iceberg lettuce to Heemskerk every day. Delivery happens within 24 hours of harvesting. Heemskerk currently employs more than 650 staff. Here, they process vegetables into the small packages of Iceberg lettuce or complete salads that are found on the shelves of supermarkets, and they process the lettuce used by the different fast food chains.

Approximately 150,000 kilograms of Iceberg lettuce is processed at Heemskerk every week in the summer. “When the lettuce arrives, our quality assurance department checks the lettuce heads by assessing a number of samples,” continues Van Daalen. “Once the Iceberg lettuce is approved and weighed, they are stored at 4 °C in the cold store. Depending on the orders, we determine the amount of lettuce needed per day for each cut. Each client has its own requirements: some want large, broader strips, while others prefer a finer shred. Once the lettuce has been cut, it is washed and dried. Then it's ready to go to the packaging department where the air composition in the package is adjusted as well. By adding carbon dioxide, we reduce the amount of oxygen in the package. This prevents the lettuce from discoloring and keeps it fresh for longer. Our packaged lettuce can be stored for six to seven days thanks to this process. The lettuce that we receive in the mornings, can be packaged and end up at our end consumer on the same day.”

The future
Both men expect to see less heads of Iceberg lettuce being sold in supermarkets. The convenience market is the future. Many people lead busy lives and don't have time to spend in the kitchen preparing food. This has seen a growth in the demand for ready-made and ready-to-use products that are fresh and healthy. The assortment of pre-cut vegetables in supermarkets is becoming more varied. This is also the case for ready-made salads that are a healthy and delicious alternative for greasy snacks and takeout.

At Heemskerk they don't just produce ready-made salads, they also develop them. “Our product developers come up with new ideas taking into account current trends. Quinoa has become incredibly trendy in a short amount of time, for example. We then use this to make a delicious salad and present our new products to our customers.” In addition to large ready-made salads, Heemskerk also produces mini-salads that come with a little package of dressing. “These are perfect for lunch time. By making vegetable consumption throughout the day easier for our customers, we help them to reach that target of the recommended 250 grams of vegetables per day.”

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