A nose for the job: Meet the Chiquita Banana Sniffer
Under the cloak of darkness, a man makes his way to the port. Stealthily, he approaches the dock, enters a vast air-conditioned room in the shadow of a container ship. Once inside, he shuts his eyes, and inhales the room.
This is not the beginning of a horror film, but a typical start to the day for Axel Krüger, better known as the “Banana Sniffer” in his native Germany. The chief quality control inspector for Chiquita has become rightly famous for his incredible sense of smell.
Axel’s main mission is to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of Chiquita bananas entering central Europe each week through Bremerhaven, a port city in northern Germany, arrive and leave his care in a perfect, unripe condition. He and his two colleagues have made an art form from using their noses to sniff out any mature bananas lurking in their midst so that the entire batch avoid contamination.
“Once a banana starts ripening it emits ethylene, which can infect the other bananas,” said Axel, who begins his day at 6 am. “The nose is an important machine. When I can’t smell anything, I know that the containers are just right."
“It’s better doing it from outside the boxes because if you open them up the fresh air sometimes disguises the suspicious odor.”
The perfect yellow Chiquita bananas on supermarket shelves and fruit bowls are rarely spotted among the green models arriving by ship—and Axel and his nostril-flaring team ensure it stays this way.
This is no easy task—every week Axel and his team have to inspect nearly 15 million bananas before sending them on their way. The precious cargo is stopped from ripening on its three-week voyage from Central America to Bremerhaven by using packaging gas and maintaining at all times a temperature between 14 and 17 degrees.
Before he entered the world of bananas, Axel worked as a policeman, a US army travel logistician, and tour guide traveling the world—but he says his current job is easily the most exciting of them all.
“There’s the thrill of the chase,” said the 58-year-old, who was born and bred in Bremerhaven, “When you sense that there’s a smell in the air-conditioned room somewhere, you have to sniff away to find out which corner it comes from, which crate it’s in and then which box."
It’s been 15 years since Axel started working as a temporary box packer for Chiquita, working his way up.
“It’s my dream job,” he admitted. “What’s interesting is you have the manual work when you’re unpacking the bananas and inspecting them, but you’re also working with lots of different people.”
It’s not all about the sniffing. Axel also gives training to customers and talks to colleagues from different Chiquita departments who want to get a better idea of the life of the fruit before it hits the supermarket—even traveling as far as Dubai to share his expertise.
The keen-nosed employee also had his work cut out for him when his unusual job attracted the media’s attention in Germany. When the most popular newspaper in Germany, Bild, dubbed him "the banana sniffer", newspapers and TV channels scrambled to interview the man whose sense of smell rules his job.
“This was the most unusual thing that’s happened to me, it made me really proud. I’d say I’m a Z-list celebrity—but in the banana world, I’m world famous,” he laughed.
The avid traveler says he never tires of inspecting the bananas, which are then dispatched onwards towards shops not only in Germany, but also to countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Kazakhstan.
“I think if you’re enthusiastic and focused you can go far,” he said. “I’ve come from being a box packer to a chief inspector in a short period of time.”
For Axel, who still enjoys the taste of bananas despite being surrounded by them daily, things can’t get much better than this.
“In the fifteen years that I’ve worked for Chiquita I’ve not had a single moment of boredom,” he said.
“There are no two weeks that are alike,” he added. “Every container is like a box of chocolates". And like Forest Gump said: “You never know what you’re gonna get.”