Plenty to discuss at FPJ Live 2018

This year’s FPJ Live event – the UK Fruit & Vegetable Congress – saw a new venue, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, and a new format – more akin to a talk show, with guests interviewed by various FPJ correspondents. Richard Crowhurst reports.

Not surprisingly, despite an agenda which included production and trade; retailing and logistics; and wholesale marketing and boosting consumption, Brexit figured highly throughout the day, although as Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said in one of her last engagements as the NFU’s Chief Horticulture and Potatoes Adviser before taking up her new role as the youngest every chair of AHDB Horticulture: “I’m not sure that the Government is ready for Brexit, and when it comes to growers and businesses, I’m not sure how much preparation you can do.”

Despite this uncertainty, she was generally upbeat about the future prospects for commercial horticulture after Brexit, describing the Agriculture Bill as “a groundbreaking piece of policy,” and added she was pleasantly “shocked” by Sajid Javid’s announcement on a trial for a new seasonal worker’s scheme just months after the Prime Minister had categorically told NFU president Minette Batters that SAWS was not on the table.

She also pointed out that horticulture’s market experience should make it easier to engage with the government over future policy. “The rest of the industry is focused on the loss of direct payments,” Hayley explained. “Horticulture is already there, so from a UK [legislation] perspective we can be at the front of the queue.”

Someone who was less optimistic about Brexit was Tim O’Malley, Group Managing Director at Nationwide Produce, which has significant businesses based in both Spain and The Netherlands. He said the group had put all investment on hold, including in Belfast and The Netherlands, until there is more certainty about the political future. “Two things about Brexit scare the people in this room,” he said. “The flow of people and the flow of product. We are set up for European procurement: we grow, pack, grade, import and export in Europe. We need frictionless borders and we are coming into a very tight season where we will be importing from the southern hemisphere.”

As a company Nationwide Produce does not directly supply any retail customers, instead focusing on product consolidation for a range of wholesale, food service, catering and other customers. “You look to do what isn’t easy and we are able to collate our whole range onto pallets,” he explained.

Tim also criticised continued deflation in the market: “We’ve never had it so good in terms of demand, but the fundamental problem is our customers don’t want to pay enough. We’re not getting paid enough for our fresh produce and some retailers are now paying more for delivered produce than they are retailing it for. The NFU does a great job with lobbying, but they should be lobbying more on this issue.”

Sainsbury’s/Asda merger

Whether the savings that consumers have been promised from the proposed merger of Sainsbury’s and Asda will come at the expense of growers and further price deflation was one question asked of Sainsbury’s buyers Finbar Cartlidge (fruit) and Julien Roberts (vegetables and salads). Perhaps unsurprisingly they were “unable” to answer.

However, Finbar said that there was still work to do in some areas of Sainsbury’s long-running Value Chain Analysis. “We need to make Sainsbury’s distinctive and provide the right offer for our customers, which delights our customers and which is distinctive to us,” he stressed, adding that “being close to growers is absolutely critical” to this.

Julien added that as the company now had fewer, bigger suppliers he hoped that in turn it was more important to those growers and packers as a customer, with British sourcing remaining important to Sainsbury’s. “We done a lot and we are doing a lot more,” he said. “We’ve introduced Crop Action Groups and we really think it is important to support British agriculture. It really delivers in terms of food miles and efficiency, and the supply base is doing an exceptional job. British produce really delivers on freshness and customers value the life of their product.”

Difficult season

Both buyers acknowledged the difficulties which this season presented. “The buyers and technical managers work really hard to balance the requirements of growers with customer’s requirements,” stressed Julien. “We try and be adaptable and we know that this will be a very difficult season for roots, potatoes and onions and we will try to take that into account.”

The challenges of price deflation and a difficult supply season are among the issues facing new Greenvale AP managing director Andy Clarkson who took up the role at the start of October after 20 years in the business. He told FPJ’sFred Searle that he wanted to continue to move the business forward while addressing challenges such as a reducing labour pool.

“We have an installation going in at one of our sites at the moment that is automating the end of line areas and that’s something that I think we could replicate in other areas, as well as looking at what happens in the field going forward,” said Andy.

Packaging and plastic

Another challenge facing the whole industry is packaging and plastic in particular. “There’s a big debate about plastics, but I think it’s fair to say that in fresh produce most people agree that plastic does play a role in reducing food waste,” Andy continued. “We’ve been looking at a number of different alternatives to plastic and we’ve made good progress there. We are looking at paper alternatives, but of course the challenge that we have is that potatoes are generally packed slightly damp and so we need a material that will retain its shape and seals with a product that is quite heavy. We have a number of options on the table at the moment and finding a material that we can use with our existing equipment and systems is the ultimate aim.”

“We want to make sure that the packaging that we supply is as functional as it can be to minimise food waste and to maintain a high quality product for supply to the retailers, while reducing the environmental impact with the smart use of materials,” explained Eric Duncan, Head of Food Science at packaging manufacturer Coveris. In order to do this the company mixes disciplines including food science, polymer science and conversion and manufacturing techniques. “It is a huge challenge and no one is pretending that it is going to be easy,” he admitted. “For years the industry has dealt with a few limited materials.”

Going forward, bioplastics and starch-based PLA materials, which can be composted under the right conditions, are likely to become more widespread. Packaging manufacturers are also looking to make the disposal and recycling of their products more straightforward, for example by moving to laminates which are composed of different materials to ones which are made up of the same chemical material, but in different films and layers.

Life stories

One popular feature of recent FPJ conferences has been the Life Stories section, which profiles key players in the produce industry, giving them a chance to talk about their life and experiences. This year it was Andrew, William and Jason Burgess of the Produce World Group, who discussed everything from growing up in a family farming business in Cambridgeshire to rugby and celebrity selfies.

After large expansion a few years ago, including getting into brassica production, the company has now reduced in size and concentrated on its core areas of roots and potatoes. “We’re now a smaller, happier business,” stressed Andrew. “We almost got squeezed out of our own business, but we are now very much back to being a family farming business.”

Gene editing

One challenge facing all farming businesses is efficient crop production, and Professor Huw Jones of the University of Aberystwyth addressed the recent European decision to class gene editing techniques such as CRISPR in the same category as genetic modification, saying that scientifically it did not make sense and that politicians such as George Eustice had indicated that Brexit might represent an opportunity for the UK to take a different approach to plant breeding regulation. However, when it comes to selling fresh produce the messages were much more positive overall.

Consumer trends

Splitting his presentation across three sessions, Ed Griffiths of Kantar Worldpanel described fresh produce as “the powerhouse of the groceries market.” With eight more shopping trips involving a fresh produce purchase than four years ago, the category is showing sales growth well ahead of the overall groceries market. Not only are consumers buying more produce, but they are also buying more different items, a trend that has been driven by a move away from the traditional Sunday roast and ‘meat and two veg’ meals, towards a more diverse and internationally-influenced repertoire.

Health remains one of the key drivers of consumer behaviour and Ed pointed out that this is “great for produce,” partly as people generally put a higher value on things that are healthy. “Health is a great message to talk about to justify price,” he explained.

In a recorded video message, Professor Tim Lang from the University of London stressed that plant-based diets will be essential from both an environmental and social point of view. “It’s plants stupid,” he said. “Broadly, for your sector this is a great time. There should be a rise in horticulture almost everywhere across the UK, although we may need to apply different criteria to what a good horticultural industry looks like.”

In terms of marketing, the ‘good, better, best’ model of grocery retailing is seeing continued movement towards the value and premium ends, squeezing the middle. “19 per cent of the time that we visit one of the ‘big four’ we also visit a discounter, and on 46 per cent of occasions people still visit more than one retailer on the same day,” pointed out Ed Griffiths.

Interestingly, while Aldi and Lidl continue to put a lot of pressure on the market, it has been heavy promotion of their value proposition by Tesco and Asda that has driven some of the recent growth and actually prevented further loss of sales from these retailers to the discounters. “There is a positive trend and people are eating more fruit and veg,” he added. Salads have done very well as the ‘go to’ healthy meal and as an element in adult lunchboxes.

However, there are challenges for other lines, such as potatoes, which are suffering due to the decline in roast dinners. “Consumers are looking for dishes and solutions,” added Ed. “You should move away from talking about meals and I suggest that we stop talking about ‘five a day’ and talk more about occasions.”