The supermarket and grocery sector in the United Kingdom has seen tremendous activity over the past several years, from the exit of Walmart from its ASDA partnership, to the growth of the deep discounters on the one hand and home delivery of groceries, including produce, on the other. At the same time, consumers have been gradually changing eating habits based on health considerations due to health considerations in many cases but also to price as market conditions have evolved. Then, Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic arrived to stir the pot. Joseph Shaw Roberts, Consumer Insight Director – Produce at market researcher Kantar provides insight into the evolution of the supermarket and grocery sector in the U.K. and how that has affected produce. He has seven years experience in grocery market research, and currently manages Kantar’s Produce Team, helping more than 70 fruit and vegetable businesses improve their sales with data-driven insights and recommendations. Shaw Roberts is passionate about encouraging people to live healthily and showcasing growth opportunities for fresh produce.
We have been fortunate to have many interactions with Joe and the Kantar team including presentation that we have highlighted here:
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We asked Joe, in this revival year of The London Produce Show and Conference to give us the “big picture” take, the “30,000 feet in the air view” of where the UK industry stands now and where it will be going tomorrow.
We asked Mike Duff, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out the big picture:
Joe Shaw Roberts
Consumer Insight Director
Q: How much different is the UK supermarket and grocery store business today than it was five years ago and how has that affected produce departments?
A: The channels we shop in have changed significantly. In 2016, supermarkets accounted for 61.6% of grocery spend, in 2021 that figure was 53.5%. We’re shopping much more in discounters and online nowadays, which has had implications for produce. Larger retailers price-matching Aldi is devaluing many produce categories, and there are nuances to how we shop online for produce.
Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic change the supermarket/grocery business in the U.K.?
A: In 2021, we kept much of our behavior from 2020. More time at home drove inflated demand for groceries. This was fulfilled by bigger trips, resulting in shopping less frequently, using e-commerce in place of large format stores.
Q: Did it substantially shift consumers from one strata of the business to another, favoring deep discounters such as Aldi, for example?
A: The biggest shift was towards e-commerce as we all spent more time at home. This played well to the need for bigger, less frequent shops; 39% of the population shopped online in 2021, 11% more than 2019 and on par with 2020. They did it 22 times on average, four more times than 2020 and five more times than 2019.
Q: How did it affect the way supermarkets and grocery stores handled produce and presented it to shoppers?
A: Supermarkets implementing distancing guidelines quickly and ensuring consistent availability of product on shelf were rewarded with higher shopper satisfaction and loyalty than those who were slow to adapt to the change. With food to go largely redundant, more focus was placed on navigating shoppers safely through the main aisles of the store, of which produce is generally first.
Q: Did consumers significantly change their produce purchasing patterns in response to the pandemic?
A: Initially, loose produce saw steep declines as shoppers became concerned about hygiene and restrictions on the number of items per basket. At its peak, 20,000 tons of produce were switched from loose to pre-packed produce. Shoppers chose more organic and premium produce with greater disposable income and focus on quality. Trends that have now softened.
Q: How has Brexit affected the supermarket and grocery store industry in the UK?
A: We began to see evidence of ‘recessionary behavior’ in 2017 as consumer confidence dipped, leading to more meals being prepared at home, shoppers trading down to value-tier products and continued switching into the discounters. Now, we see shoots of becoming more self-sufficient with our produce consumption as a nation, evidenced, for example, by the proliferation of vertical farms in recent years.
Q: What has been the combined effect of Brexit and COVID been and has the combination prompted fundamental change in supermarkets/groceries and how they are presenting produce to consumers?
A: They are two very different events with different consequences from a consumer behavior standpoint. Brexit lowered consumer confidence and some of that was felt on shelf, with shoppers trading down to cheaper options and opting to scratch cook more to save money. COVID too lowered consumer confidence, but due to restrictions on our freedom, led to record growth in take-home groceries. Some themes in produce are consistent through both events, such as the polarization of many produce categories into premium and value options.
Q: Of course, some events and trends in the market, Walmart’s sale of ASDA and the expansion of deep discount grocery operators, have roots before Brexit and the pandemic, so what was the overall trend in the market before and did those events change the direction or did they act as a catalyst that sped up change that was underway?
A: Prior to Brexit, the grocery market was in a period of deflation as shoppers moved more spend to the cheaper discounters, and larger supermarkets slashed prices to try to retain customers. For different reasons, both Brexit and the pandemic have pushed grocery prices up in an otherwise intense cost battle to retain customers. Lockdowns gave online grocery operators the boost they needed to access older shoppers for some of whom the technology was previously a barrier, fast-tracking the online shopping trend which was previously succeeding in engaging existing customers more, but struggling to find new ones.
Q: Lately, we’ve seen technology becoming a bigger factor in supermarket sales, so how has digitally enabled shopping and delivery, including the advent of Ocado, changed the supermarket business and its approach to produce?
A: Online shopping is now a significant and habitual part of our grocery shopping repertoires, having moved from 7% of our grocery spend in 2016 to 13% in 2021. This acceleration would not have happened without lockdowns. There are some interesting nuances to how we buy produce online: more organic, more premium, slightly more veg, slightly less fruit, all pointing to a need for reassurance of quality and concern about condition of items when they turn up.
Q: Just walk out technology is becoming part of the market, with Amazon and Sainsbury partnering and, I believe, Aldi beginning to use the technology. How do you expect that to change the marketplace, particularly in urban areas where people often do their shopping at convenience groceries on the way home from work?
A: It may give convenience grocery stores the shot in the arm they need having struggled prior to the pandemic, and after the initial surge in March/April 2020. It’s still very early to make predictions about behavioral change, but I suspect the effect on sales will be small in comparison to the events of the last two years.
Q: How have consumer trends, such as the demand for organics, vegetarian/vegan lifestyles, changing demographics, environmental concerns and considerations of wellness in general, affected supermarkets/grocery stores and their produce operations recently?
A: You might think that recent dietary changes hyped up in the media would have driven fresh produce sales through the roof, but the reality is that the changes are still relatively small, and much of the associated consumer spend has gone into added-value chilled convenience foods. Organics are at a pivotal point. Having gained many shoppers during the pandemic, the market is struggling to retain them as concerns about rising prices affect consumer spending. They do, however, appeal to the most sustainably-minded consumers, who represent 29% of the GB population and are worth £37bn to the U.K. grocery market. If produce is locally sourced or partnered with an ethical accreditation, this should be clear to shoppers to build their trust.
Q: How have more upmarket supermarkets and groceries such as Waitrose fared in all this?
A: Waitrose are performing roughly on par with the market, Marks & Spencer of course saw a big pandemic boost from taking over Ocado supply from Waitrose. Consumers have emerged from the pandemic in varying degrees of financial comfort. The fact that 41% of the population say they are ‘comfortable’ is good news for upmarket stores. Less good news is the incessant news of rising prices, which has led even this group of ‘comfortable’ consumers to begin to trade down to cheaper stores.
Q: How have other major supermarket chains, Sainsbury among them but also Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, fared through the past few years and the effects of Brexit, the pandemic and other influences that changed the marketplace?
A: All ‘Big 4’ retailers saw huge growth in their online arms over the pandemic and are now facing challenging annualizations. Tesco are the standout performer here. Clubcard prices and the Aldi price match have helped retain customer loyalty at a potentially difficult time to do so, growing their grocery share by over half a percent over the last year.
Q: What effect has inflation recently had on supermarket/groceries and their produce operations?
A: I’m best placed to answer this in terms of the effect it’s having on consumer choices. The consumer reaction is polarizing: The two best performing ‘tiers’ in the grocery market in the latest 12 weeks to 20th Feb are premium and economy, exemplifying the divided finances of consumers emerging from the pandemic. In produce, the picture is somewhat different, largely because it’s the battleground upon which retailers fight for the best value perception. The produce market saw inflation of 1% in the latest 12 weeks to 20th Feb, compared to 5% in the wider grocery market, and therefore hasn’t seen the same pronounced consumer reaction.
Q: Of course, present world turmoil is evident on the news daily. What do you expect the future to hold for the retail food business in the U.K. and produce retailing?
A. I would expect to see more reactions to price rises, which haven’t fully hit the grocery market in the way they have other sectors of the economy. We will see a notable drop in sales of high fat, sugar and salt items as legislation hits shelves and prompts a race for space, much of which has the potential to be repurposed for good with healthier items. Sustainability will continue to be a key area of focus, with eco-active consumers set to account for two in three shoppers by 2030.
Joseph Shaw Roberts and the work at Kantar is always fascinating and in times such as these, when so much is changing, so much is at stake, the insights he offers are invaluable.
At core it not fully recognized in the produce industry how the imporatnt role produce palys during inflationary time:
“In produce, the picture is somewhat different, largely because it’s the battleground upon which retailers fight for the best value perception. The produce market saw inflation of 1% in the latest 12 weeks to 20th Feb, compared to 5% in the wider grocery market, and therefore hasn’t seen the same pronounced consumer reaction.”
What an incredible mixed bag! On the one hand sales will not suffer as they do in other departments and may even increase as the relative value of produce rises when other departments are raising prices.
On the flip side retailers are going to beat up shippers to try, desperately, to retain their margins. This is not going to be a pretty picture.
As shopping venues evolve, how well is the industry really primed to adapt to the needs of different types of retailing? How many shippers just sell a commodity and haven’t prepared for the fracturing of demand into different shopping venues? How amny have a strategy for how to introduce new products to a shipper online?
Please join us for the enlightening review at the London produce Show and Conference, held March 21, 22 and 23 at the ExCeL center in London. There is no charge for admission for industry professionals and you can register right here.
Still a few opportunities for last minute sponsors and exhibitors, if you are interested just let us know here.
The world is changing and the well informed will win, come and join the winners by engaging with Kantar and the broader London Produce Show and Conference. We look forward to building a better industry, together. See you at ExCeL.
We go back a long ways with the Pandols. When the Pundit was testing his eye teeth in the business, our family company used to split a Chilean shipper with the Pandols and Jack Pandol was the man my father called on to lecture this incipient Pundit when he was still in grade school about the UFW.
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Now, as The London Produce Show and Conference kicks off a reunion for the produce industry as the pandemic fades, John joins us to shine a spotlight on the real dilemmas facing producers and the supply side as they try and wrestle with the needs of both trade buyers and consumers. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott to find out more:
Director of Special Projects
Q: For London Produce Show attendees in the know, or who experienced the quick-fire Q&A round between you and Jim Prevor that you did in New York, your presentation in London, hitting the hot topics facing the industry, should not be missed. You have never been shy about speaking your mind and instigating important debate to better the industry.
A: This is the teaser; you’re doing the action movie trailer...
Q: What’s sticking in your craw right now?
A: The challenge of selling it all. Volume is vanity, profit is sanity. You can always explain a low price to a grower. You can never explain why you couldn’t sell it. Focusing on average price versus the percent of crop sold is a legacy of a time when products were scarce and market windows were common. The assumption is all produce could be sold within the market range.
Q: Isn’t there a home for different products, grades, etc., what about terminal markets,Hunts Point Produce Market in NYC, London’s New Covent Garden...
A: Increasingly, retailers and foodservice operators have no interest in moving more volume. Wholesalers refuse open price consignments and even charities pass on the ability to receive more product. Growers ask, ‘how much will the market pay’ instead of ‘how many will the market take’.
Q: Even within the competitive environment, hasn’t the industry fostered many long-term relationships between suppliers and retailers, who stick together when there are issues, or Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate?
Is company diversification a must or is it more about the agility to adjust to market fluctuations? Are you suggesting value-added products, honing specific markets, customers/consumer bases?
A: The question is, should a grower first secure high-priced programs and boutique sales...and then deal with the rest of the crop, or should one first secure homes for all the volume then substitute better sales for lower; like the strategies a commodity grower does when selling futures.
Q: What about securing long-term contracts? Didn’t Walmart do that in the days of Bruce Peterson, a Produce Business Vanguard Award winner? I remember Jim writing some strong critical columns about Walmart’s changing buying strategies, and its switch to a global sourcing initiative in 2009, auctioning for lowest prices...that squeezing already low margins and pitting suppliers against each other conflicted with increased investments in food safety, sustainability index requirements, and higher quality...
A: Long term loyalty contracts. I don’t know of a lot of multi-year contracts. Just because a guy may continue on --- we kind of have a rolling renewal. I have a good relationship with a store and, all of a sudden they get bought out, or they have a new management system, they decide they’re looking for different grades, even if comps sales change, people change their hairdos and they change their grape suppliers.
After Bruce Peterson, Walmart had all these suppliers...Then they figured, all our suppliers are about the same, you can bid, and six of you will get business and six of you will get zero... Then there’s the question of differentiation, and even reliability wasn’t a differentiator. The thought process, why would I have 12 guys here, I just want six, let’s bid, and then you start chasing guys away, and you only have a few remain.
In the long term that’s bad. If you had 12 guys, you’d have the thinking and innovation of 12 guys. Then you find out you didn’t get the innovative products. That actually did happen to Walmart. In one regard, Walmart is not the target of innovation because of their size (and volume requirements). You need to fill a lot of stores... ‘We’re hearing about this item in Jim Prevor’s share group, or customers are asking for it, can we get it?’ The answer could be, no it’s not good for my business, or we’re not interested in selling you Cotton Candy grapes.
Q: I remember the Cotton Candy grape making its American deput at the New York Produce Show in 2011, through your partnership with the Grapery. And how the Grapery partnered with Mack Multiples to bring Cotton Candy grapes to the UK exclusively through Sainsbury’s... where it’s known as Candy Floss.
A: The other thing, when introducing a new variety or packaging, first you have to go to smaller retailers who are open to testing before putting it in 1,000 stores. And larger retailers ask, can you show me some kind of track record. So, the big guys tend to be last ones to get it.
Sometimes, you get to a certain point, we’ve seen growers that say those guys aren’t helping us develop the business, they come to the table when the soup’s already done; by virtue of size, they’re just not set up to test in a few stores.
There was a variety one of the breeders offered to a major U.S. retailer. It was going to be their specific variety and they picked their main supplier. The variety didn’t go at retail like they thought. It would have been better to test in a few stores before they went out and committed major resources. I don’t know if they were contractually obligated or the retailer felt obligated to buy the fruit, it didn’t sell well, they weren’t selling other things they could have had on the shelves, and they had a lot of shrink. Essentially, the breeder going straight to the retailer and then nominating growers to grow it was not very good.
Q: It sounds like a complicated process, especially with the proliferation of SKUs...
A: We look at the whole store, the entire food selection. Retailers may introduce over 1,000 products every year and most of them don’t sell. I go to the supermarket and there are 25 different SKUs of Oreo cookies. Do we really need that many Oreo cookies?
Q: Are you saying 25 SKUs of the Oreo brand, or similar products that replicate that brand?
A: The brand of Oreo cookies, there was regular, double stuffed, double stuff dipped in chocolate, a pistachio cream one...there was a diet one with a thinner Oreo cookie, there were different size packages. I love Oreo cookies, but I don’t need 25 choices.
Q: It’s interesting you bring that up. The produce department typically has less branded product than other parts of the store. In the case of bananas, doesn’t a retailer otypically just carry one brand...In addition, what’s happening with the private label side of the business?
A: With bananas, a retailer will have a contract with a supplier, and it’s unusual to see different banana brands there, you don’t even see the brand with a private label. Increasingly now we’re starting to see... with grapes they will have a private label, a store label, then a fairly plain bag, I know HEB does that.
We’re really trying to figure out why stores are pushing private label as robustly as they are.
Publix has GreenWise for organics. Walmart has Marketside...
Every time we go to a grocery store, we see their own brand private label, and now it’s in produce.
I think it was a Hartman Group study I saw, 75 percent of consumers trust the store brand, and only 65 percent trust a supplier brand...
There’s been far less branded product in produce traditionally. What’s our most branded thing? I’d say packaged salads, which were introduced in the 90’s, you had the packaging technology with films that could make it work. Before then it was probably not possible. Look at all those mixed brands, whether it’s Ready Pac or Dole...and then you will see the store level, Publix GreenWise, SE for Winn Dixie, you’ll see the Albertson’s Group has their organic line and their Signature line. The packaged salad category is filled with multiple supplier brands, and we see private label increasing within it.
Q: Isn’t Driscoll’s an ideal example of a company that built an iconic brand to distinguish itself in the marketplace? Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter shared perspective about the company’s multi-faceted strategy during our interview for his Produce Business Vanguard Award profile...
A: Driscoll’s brand is well known, Driscoll’s does not do private label to my understanding. It has a Driscoll’s label, an in season label they use that is special, they have a high flavor label, they have a non-Driscoll label they use. They have a label that doesn’t prominently say Driscoll’s...
We also see within very branded product or traditional branded companies they don’t use their brands all the time. Yet the themes we hear, people want to know where their food came from, the story of the guy who farmed it...
Q: Is private label a way to lower costs, a strategy for retailers to differentiate and create their own identity to drive customer loyalty...?
A: On one hand we’re being told by all these brand building companies you need your story told upfront but there are these big pieces of business where I’m a silent partner. My question is, from a marketing point of view, and from a business point of view where’s this all going. If consumers really want to know the story, why would they buy private label? Is there going to be a big rejection of private label because people are going to say I don’t trust that retailer, then I should be building my own brand and turning down business with private label. If it’s really true that consumers are indifferent or trust the retailer more, I should be pursuing private label.
Q: Not all retailers are created equal in terms of customer loyalty...
A: Focus on retailers that have good private label programs, and they give you lead time, and it works operationally. Is it all about supplier branding and knowing the grower? I’m not ready to make a categoric statement. Look at store branding at Wegmans, Publix, Aldi, HEB...Costco is another one, they seem to be pretty good at what they do.
I sit on panels with Lisa Cork, who is all about branding produce.
Q: Lisa Cork is a branding guru. She has driven produce company sales through the roof by reinventing brands...At a previous London Produce Show, she presented a case for using packaging as a marketing tool in the UK retail market, where almost all the produce is packaged...
A: I think the average person in the UK knows Marks & Spencer doesn’t own vineyards and celery fields, that those are indeed third parties. Can I pick up a Marks & Spencer product and find out where it came from, probably not, and do people really want to know that, oh, that’s interesting, my mango came from Central Africa, it went on a ship...to a warehouse in Paddington and then a distribution center in Leeds and then on a truck to my store in London? Maybe there’s a niche consumer that cares, but the great majority of consumers just want that mango.
Q: So, most consumers shopping at Marks & Spencer would have confidence if they’re buying produce from Marks & Spencer it would be high quality, that the mango is good... I remember years ago there was some controversy when stores put airplane symbols on packages of produce airfreighted into the UK related to carbon footprints, impacting countries like Kenya and creating a backlash of sorts.
A: We get into this thing where we need to develop a new market, we need value added product, or new customers, or new countries. How do I keep getting into this mess, why do I always have too much product for my business, and I have to find new guys? Can’t I figure out, we only need to produce this amount.
In the U.S., people are going to eat eight pounds of grapes, so much a week, we need to supply no more than x amount in a given week. Why can’t we do that? Our answer is we need new markets, get people to eat more, or we have to get rid of a competitor.
Our thing in the U.S. is saying we are in trouble because of these darn foreign competitors. We saw a lot of activity of countries trying to penetrate our markets. Mexican blueberries, tomatoes...there were about five different trade cases within the last 6 to 15 months. ‘We can’t make a living because there’s all this cheap foreign produce.’ They have costs too. American growers look at foreign and think things are less expensive in foreign countries, it’s not always cheaper.
Q: We’ve covered those contentious trade disputes. In the case of blueberries, you had U.S. based blueberry producers on both sides of the debate; The American Blueberry Growers Alliance (ABGA) testifying on the harmful effects of increased imports to its members businesses, and the Blueberry Coalition opposing limitations on imports.
A: My problem is if I’m going into planting, and processing and cold storage and all those long-term things, if I’m planting for a market that doesn’t exist, why am I doing that. My grape business is good, but if I make it 10 percent bigger, what really influences demand and consumption. We all get in a situation where we need more demand, so I’m going to promote and merchandise, you see the typical things. If you look at a Produce Business article, make a bigger display, build more variety... look at the big nuts display, I’ll buy nuts this week. How do we determine how many nuts or grapes we should produce?
The lettuce industry is probably a lot closer to getting those estimates right, and many of the vegetables too are based on demand and contract, they don’t say we’re going to plant a lot more, they look out, there’s demand for this much of this crop, we’re going to plant for the business it doesn’t get crazy.
Q: Why isn’t the grape industry doing the same? Why is there such proliferation?
A: In a permanent crop like avocados or grapes, when I plant a vineyard, I need to know demand five to 20 years from now. I’m going completely blind, which is why we get out of whack. I want to be bigger so I’m more efficient, now I’ve moved my costs down, but how do I sell all this?
I could abandon the field, give to a food bank but I don’t make money if I don’t have a place for it.
The question is, why am I doing that afterwards? We have all these tools, all these predictive forecasting, artificial intelligence and trend tracking. How come they can’t tell me how much to plant five years from now, or at least give me some insight into it.
There is proliferation of crops. Look at blueberries. People are buying more blueberries because of antioxidants, ok, but what is the demand, we can’t sell all the blueberries... They have to go to the freezer, and there’s not even capacity in the freezer. We produce too many.
It’s always been the case to have global supply off-season, but why are we producing so many. We’re becoming more efficient...if I plant varieties that produce 20 percent more yield, should I plant less, or reduce land.
Q: Proponents of limiting imports say the windows for off season crops are expanding and encroaching on domestic growing seasons. And they say it effects pricing, and the margins they can achieve...
A: Well, retail price and wholesale price are not necessarily tightly related. In other words, there’s this assumption when fruit is in season fruit is cheap in the store. We have a major grape promotion on the West coast, they’re 99 cents, their normal price is $2.99, and the price was like that for 25 years.
It has nothing to do with what actual costs are. We have prices that are lower than that.
What does the land cost, what are labor costs...? Mira, you live in Manhattan. A McDonald’s hamburger should cost double what it costs in Bakersfield, yet it’s the same price because they have a chain, although it’s more expensive at the airport...
Q: Let’s bring this back to the produce department and impacts of promotions to increase sales and consumption... Is this a matter of interchanging bumps in sales category by category, perhaps trend related, or an overall department boost?
A: Grapefruit consumption is about 15 percent of what it was 30 years ago. It was the breakfast of old people. Some medications and health issues counteract with grapefruit.
Sales of Navel orange are less. We had a blip during Covid, people bought bags, they realize they are cheap, 75 cents a pound. We see the trees have gone down now.
Pomegranates went down. Pomegranates got planted like crazy and we’ve seen a lot of fields bulldozed here in the Valley. Even the juiced pomegranates, they’re not here anymore. The biggest reason is mechanization. If you have 160 acres and you have a mechanical way to take out the arils and make juice, all of a sudden you have 7000 acres. People were into pomegranate juice, the antioxidants and all that...you could separate the arils and buy them in a little cup. They had their bump and are there, but you don’t see the plantings in the countryside as you did before.
We see vineyards that don’t get picked, there are certain varieties. One of the things in our data base,
those guys just abandoned that field. What is it about that variety that can’t sell for even half the price?
We’ve seen organic fields packing as conventional. They take up all the organic business, and then they don’t have anymore, so they pack and sell it as conventional.
Q: That would hurt them because they’d get more money if it was organic, right?
A: Yes. It’s like me going to the juice plant, normally we pick 85-90 percent of our grapes for fresh and 10-15 percent for juice. For the last three generations it’s been like that. Suddenly we could have really good quality, why should we sell it as byproduct. 140 dollars a ton is not like selling it for 20 dollars a box. Not even close.
In the case of organic, we know a lot of growers don’t’ sell their whole product as organic; a lot of their product is converted to conventional.
Q: Every year, there are news reports, and industry talk about how demand for organic keeps increasing... Also, that there are more organic varieties, which can be priced to compete more closely to the conventional alternative.
A: What is organic production, and the idea is why don’t you plant organic if there is so much demand for it, and you can actually sell it. Every store takes a little bit. And there are certain guys who say organic is the way it should be and I’ll only stock organic. And there are the rest of them that absolutely choose not to. Often, it’s more like, you know, we’ll handle it, and keep it as a niche product for 10 or 20 percent of our customers, who think they’re buying something better, and we’ll use it as an upsell strategy. We see a lot of that.
Q: In the U.S., Costco is a force in organics, making news back in 2015 when it surpassed Whole Foods as the largest organic retailer... In speaking with Costco’s Frank Padilla for his Produce Business Vanguard Award profile, Costco is making strides to replace conventional produce with organic produce when possible...
A: Yes. Costco doesn’t want a lot of SKUs, if they can substitute out a conventional product for organic, they don’t want to carry both. They have a customer base that wants that. They’re kind of in a bubble.
I went to Costco a few days ago. They had organic raspberries and conventional raspberries. The conventional was $4.49 and the organic was $6.49. That’s a 50 percent difference. They were similar in quality. We think 50 percent of the people will buy organic at a 10 to 20 percent price differential. I know with most products you need a 35 percent cost differential for organic, the guys that examine agriculture say that.
So, if you have a real high margin on conventional and a lower margin on organic, you sell more organic at a higher price, but you make less margin. OK, great, it depends on what metrics you’re thinking about. If the manager gets paid on gross sales dollars that’s fine, if the manager gets paid on gross margin that’s not good.
Q: Does that pay structure vary a lot depending on the retailer?
A: There are different metrics, in some cases its gross profit, in some cases its gross margin, in some cases it’s shrink... We talk about organic, OK, organic starts getting old quicker, it depends if they put in the fresh cut section of the store, sometimes they put in the conventional area at lower prices...
Q: This connects back to oversupply and food waste. I know you have some pointed words on that topic.
A: Yes, let’s talk about food waste fallacies. The single largest source of food waste is too much food, excess production. We throw away food because we produce too much of it. Remember in the 60’s, the population boom, there is no way we can produce enough food and people are going to starve to death. Then the rationale, so, if we produce too much, take that food, and give it to people. I could give it away or store it longer. We have wonderful technologies to increase shelf life. Back in the day, I increased my cucumbers shelf life, it’s called pickles. When we couldn’t consume fresh fruit, we preserved it...
Q: Logistically, it’s not always possible to get that excess food to those in need. Also, there are costs involved with picking, harvesting, and transporting, etc. The efforts to sell misshapen fruit, Ugly Fruit campaigns, while good intentioned have had mixed results at retail... Does it make sense to have a goal of zero waste?
A: I would argue, no. If you’re going to have excess, you will have waste. We go and push it into the grape juice, we do the dessert syrup that goes to Starbucks, that’s a big customer. In some cases, people figure, I can just abandon it in the field, or I can pack it and ship it to Chicago, and he can dump it there.
We say, oh we have all these mechanisms, but I can’t sell the fruit I have right now, and I’m going to have lower grades? I look at the Ugly Fruit programs that have been around for several years. If Wonky Fruit is a good idea, show me your sales data.
A lot of this goes to the difference between data and insight. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data insight is everywhere. The two biggest new services in produce tend to be either brand building guides or AI to either help operations or data tracking.
Q: How reliable is historical data in assessing future trends? Developing varieties can take a long time...
A: This reminds me of a presentation on the difference between tracking a trend and forecasting (from NEPC Boston) Have you ever heard of the Gartner Hype Cycle from the tech world ...look at the curve.
Data is knowing you are driving 70 kms per hour. Insight is knowing that is too fast in front of a school and too slow on the motorway.
It’s like driving down the road looking in rear view mirror. As long as things are not radically different, you’re ok. With trends and innovations, how come some fruits or some vegetables go up and some go down in consumption and why. Trend tracking doesn’t really tell you the why. We can go to a lot of these presentations, and they tell us people are eating more salads and less roasted vegetables, but they can’t say why. I need to plan production next year or for certain crops for the next 20 years. Is this just a flash in the pan or sustained? That’s why we want more data not just simplistic data.
There’s the popular diet du jour, for a while it was low carbs, down with potatoes then back up with potatoes, all fats were bad, then olive oil and avocados are good fats...Now sugar is the number one avoidance attribute in the U.S. Many lifestyle diets discourage fruit consumption. Sugar is what makes fruits good. If people stop eating sugar will the fruit business start going down, I don’t believe that is true. People will come to the realization that not all sugars are created equal, OK, there’s the calories, but to eliminate total classes of food because of one attribute is illogical. Is it time for ‘the good sugar’ the same way we talk about ‘the good fat’?
Q: Promoting fruit as good sugar, interesting...of course there’s no shortage of selling points from a health standpoint, antioxidants, anti-inflammation properties, science linked to reduced risk of diseases. Is marketing to health reaching a niche audience?
A: Recommendations will influence consumption for say 18 months, we might see these fads, and on to the next miracle diet. There seems to be fluid hierarchy of attributes with consumers. OK say antioxidants are in the news, or some popular celebrity is promoting something and then suddenly there’s a lot of interest in that...Two months later I’m all about fiber content, then I want celery... For the population that seems to follow such things, there seems to be a short attention span for top-of-mind attributes. I need to monitor calories, so calories are top of mind forever, but it doesn’t seem to work like that, but that’s true for weight maintenance, and health too.
But when you say health, well health to a young person may be fitness and appearance, and health to an older person keeping out of wheelchair mobility and vision and things like that.
Q: Maria Weiloch, ICA Sweden, who also will be presenting in London, points to research that shows a certain percentage of consumers is turned off by campaigns that tell them what is good and bad for them to eat. And that there is often an association that what is good for you doesn’t taste as good...
A: In reality, what you like and does it have healthy attributes are not related, it’s all over the board, but in general people think healthy things don’t taste as good, and all the stuff that’s bad for you is delicious.
We use moral words, oh, this is decadent, why is eating something sinful? We use moral ideology to describe food in a negative fashion. The quarterback Tom Brady says, I don’t eat strawberries because of XYZ...People will look down a set of facts that agrees with their opinion.
It gets back to the demand planning. The best way to reduce food waste, surplus food, is to determine I didn’t need to produce it. I have the water usage, I need to irrigate it, the labor costs, all these costs into food I’m abandoning. We could have used that fertilizer, all those inputs and all that labor for something else. Hey, government, pay me not to produce surplus food. I’m not running a tractor, I’m not doing xyz.. how many metric tons of carbon footprints am I not extending? You’ve been planting 1,000 acres, just plant 800 acres.
Now they want me to set aside land for bees. There’s a program to set aside three percent of your land for native pollinators. There are problems with bees, we have invasive species, African bees, certain diseases that get into them. Some argue against agrichemicals... We’re going to give three percent of our land for native habitats, grow flowers for bees, now I have to water that, I have to farm that land just for the bees. Why couldn’t we make a bee reserve here instead.
Q: Isn’t this program part of Walmart’s initiative focused on restoring pollinator habitats through integrated pest management?
A: Yes. I don’t know if Walmart is requiring it or it’s on a volunteer basis to be a part of that program. We have this shortage of water, so the Army of Engineers has decided to redo the dams. We have lands we can’t farm because of water shortages, but we’re going to set aside land for bees...
Q: According to Walmart, “Walmart U.S. will encourage fresh produce suppliers to protect, restore or establish pollinator habitats by 2025 on at least 3% of land they own, operate and/or invest in and report annual progress....and “Walmart U.S. is committing to source 100 percent of the fresh produce and floral we sell in our in-store produce department from suppliers that adopt IPM practices, as verified by a third party by 2025.”
A: There is a fluid hierarchy of items in corporate sustainability. After the summer of George Floyd, there was a renewed focus on sourcing from black-owned businesses and becoming more diversified...
I think our trade is going very carefully with the sustainable packaging thing and the idea of replacing all these plastics. How do you keep some of these products fresh and protected? We are looking at different options and experimenting with alternatives, but we’re going to have a lot of problems with non-transparent packaging... Every retailer came out and made their announcements, what products can we try this with, apples or potatoes, but don’t touch the berries. I commend retailers for taking that approach. Hey, United Nations if you have a better alternative to plastic, bring it on.
Q: Philippe Binard of Freshfel discussed the problems brought on by the French plastic packaging ban that went into effect in January 2022.
A: Yes. It reminds me of the fumigant methyl bromide, which we still use now. There was a Montreal Protocol in 1988 to get rid of it, to phase it out in 30 years. And in five years you could start to test alternatives. So, 30 years was four years ago, and we still don’t have a replacement. We have some substitutes that are adequate for some applications but don’t in others. We’re still using the methopromide we used 30 years ago. Ronald Reagan was President and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. There were all these U.N. meetings, it was ozone depleting, and we were going to phase it out.
At the New York Produce Show, Brad Rickard of Cornell presented interesting research, would consumers pay more if you could breed grapes with less chemicals, and it was not that important, as long as it tastes good and looks good, I’ll buy it...The unspoken assumption, I’m down with doing things for the environment as long as it doesn’t affect my personal priorities.
I think we could say the same about packaging. Packaging is to protect and maintain the quality of the product inside. That is packaging’s mission statement you could say. If you can do that and have a more sustainable package, I’m on board. I’ll do things for the environment, as long as it doesn’t cause problems for me personally, or cost too much...
Q: Could these high inflation rates create additional issues there?
A: How are companies managing this? Supermarkets talk about comp sales. How were dollar sales compared to last year? My stock portfolio went up 10 percent, but the market went up 20 percent...
We haven’t had this type of inflation in more than 40 years. Stores with 10 percent increase in sales are actually doing horrible, and those with 4 percent increase are doing really well...Comparing numbers on a page, am I measuring the right things in the right way?
The other thing is pricing, initially consumers have a hypersensitivity to price, researchers call it a value perception shift. Whether it’s a burger and fries, a bunch of grapes, a car, or a gallon of gas, what’s this supposed to cost now? Initially we have sticker shock. The deal is, that the initial shock wears off over time.
We find a new equilibrium of what things should cost, the reaction is, oh no, we can’t raise prices...we’re in this price time capsule where prices can’t go up. At some point cars cost more, fast food is a lot more, restaurants are a lot more, we’re still driving cars and eating fast food...
The other thing, prices have been suppressed for a long time. Ocean freight wasn’t making money for 20 years and now they’re making it back. We had artificially low inflation for a long time. And when prices go up there’s a sticker shock. People are also making more money.
Q: Not everyone though...Do you think the pandemic might be playing into this?
A: To an extent, but I still think the reaction to price increases has historic precedents, when prices go up, people think there should be a law against it, these guys are steeling from me...
Q: The produce industry already contends with very low margins...
A: We need to be very competitive. Few people have pricing power. At the end of the day, if apples are 10 dollars, I won’t eat apples, I’ll substitute for another fruit. A store can only raise prices so much within a competitive area.
Q: What’s your advice?
A: In short, on the supplier side, we need to be more thoughtful predicting demand before we expand.
To retailers, my advice, don’t panic with inflation, consumers will get over it. The industry is gathering in London to help build that synergy.
Q: Yes, and you’ve sparked plenty of conversation to brainstorm the best paths forward through that synergy.
John doesn’t specifically mention it but the root of many of the issues he is concerned with is that per-capita produce consumption is not increasing and may well be declining. Decades of industry programs to increase consumption have mostly failed. At the London Show we have presentations from Maria Weiloch of ICA, Rich Dachman of Brighter Bites and Dan Parker of Veg Power each representing cutting edge efforts to increase consumption.
The great success of the industry is actually producing better products, charging more for them, so we can see sales in financial terms increase on a per capita basis even if actual consumption is flat or declining.
There is a clear bifurcation in consumption with more affluent, more educated consumers upping produce consumption while poorer, less educated people, are eating less fresh produce.
Even with great programs that are boosting consumption among the poor or young children, we just don’t the data to know if giving produce for free to young children, actually means those children ill aet more produce when they are 35 and have to pay for it themselves.
John, being a deep insider blessed with a willingness to speak out, is a vitally important source of information. Issues such as organic produce being sold as conventional because there is limited demand and the reality of price differentiation and production cost differentiation on organic are vital issues to discuss.
The role of retailers trying to dictate land seta sides for bees and what not and what that means for the economic viability of agriculture. These are all things so many are afraid to discuss.
You can’t be fully informed if you are not engaged with these issues as these issues will determine the future of many businesses and the industry as a whole.
So please join us at The London Produce Show and Conference to engage with John and the issues that matter for our businesses and our industry.
You can register for free attendance at The London Produce Show and Conference right here.
There are still some last minute opportunities for sponsoring and exhibiting and you can seize those right here.
Come and be part of the great industry reawakening! We look forward to seeing everyone at The London Produce Show and Conference.
At the upcoming London Produce Show, one of our featured speakers will be Ian Nottage, a classically trained Chef with over 40 years experience in the foodservice and hospitality industry and a Fellow of the Craft Guild of Chefs.
He is currently Head of Food Development at Sysco Speciality Group where he works with their extensive customer base to forge meaningful links between grower, farmer, producer, manufacturer, chefs and buyers to deliver profitable, relevant and innovative menu solutions and to help develop the understanding and appreciation in the trade about how our produce arrives from field to fork.
During his time in professional kitchens Ian held positions as Executive Chef at such prestigious venues as Hampton Court Palace, Stoll Moss theaters and The London Coliseum. Ian is also involved in the wider industry and is an active member of The Craft Guild of Chefs and a regular judge at The Great Taste Awards, Quality Food Awards, World and British Cheese Awards, Hotelympia Salon Culinaire and the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards.
He is also co-founder and event director of The Universal Cookery and Food Festival.
We asked PRODUCE BUSINESS Contributing Editor, Steven Loeb, to find out more. Ian talked to us about the current food trends in the UK, how to convince growers to take a chance on new crops, and the difference between what chefs and consumers look for in their produce.
Head of Food Development
Sysco Speciality Group
Q: Talk about yourself a little bit about yourself and what your company does.
A: I work for the UK Sysco speciality group, which is a collection of different companies. So, we have M&J Seafood, which is obviously a seafood and shellfish speciality company; we have FreshDirect, which is a bit like FreshPoint in the US. So, that’s the fresh produce business. We have a company called Wild Harvest, which makes real, premium ingredients for chefs, so that's produce, but speciality produce, like blood oranges, wild garlic, forage ingredients. And we also have a lot of chef ingredients as well, things like ingredients from molecular gastronomy, different types of chocolate and couvertures, specialist oils, vinegars, truffles, that sort of thing. And we also have our own production facility called Fresh Kitchen, where we make sauces, soups, stews, pickles, mostly vegetables and things for our customers, although we offer a bespoke service; I guess you guys would call it ‘commissary.’
I've been with the company now for two years and I head up the food development team. Food development is talking chef to chef, so we'll work with our customers to help them develop menu innovation, recipes, ingredients that will showcase what's best in season, and help them to design menus. We also work with a lot of our producers and our growers and we form the link between the chef and the restaurant or the hotel or the contract caterer with the guys that grow the food for them. It's really, really important for us to help chefs understand where produce comes from.
Q: Sysco and FreshDirect, they act as a portal for restaurants to acquire foods, including fresh produce. What role does the company play in that?
A: For want of a better description, we're wholesalers. So, we will source the product, we will contract the product with growers and producers, and we'll then sell that on to the end user, the chefs and the restaurants and the groups.
Q: How do growers and shippers work with the company to get new products out there and higher use of fresh produce?
A: They’ll work with our procurement team, and they’ll work with my team, and we also have a range team. So, it's a little bit convoluted but, effectively, the range team will decide what we sell and the procurement team will source what we sell. So, it's a two way street. Hopefully, the good growers will come to us and say, ‘hey, I've got sprouting cauliflower. I've got purple sprouts, kalettes, or a new type of sweet potato,’ whatever it might be. So, we're quite reliant on them, but it's also about us getting out with them to meet them, get on the farms, get in the greenhouses, and see what they're doing so then we can act as that bridge between the grower and the chef. We're trying to form those bonds and it really helps chefs to be more in tune with their products and their seasonality and what goes into making the product, rather than just a box of cauliflower turning up at the back door of the restaurant. They'll understand if it's snowing when it's not supposed to be snowing and the products are not as good as they should be or if there's rainstorms in Spain and they can't get the product across. So, that's what we try to encourage is a better understanding of where produce comes from.
Q: It's almost like you're working with both sides to foster innovation, in a certain sense. So, does that come from the top down or the bottom up? And by that I mean, do the chefs come up with what's going to be new? Or do the customers decide, ‘this is what I want,’ and then that decides what should be grown?
A: It's some and some, because, in the world of produce, you can't just go, ‘I'd like a purple tomato, go and grow it.’ It takes years and years and years and years of research. So, we're pretty reliant on field trials and trial varieties and stuff like that. It is tricky, because it can take 10 or 15 years or more to develop a product, so we're pretty reliant on growers coming to us and saying, ‘look, I've got some amazing new tomatoes that are super sweet. It's been 15 years in development.’ And then it's our job to take that to the chef and say, ‘look, this is new. Can you use it? What do you think?’ And that's always the hard bit because it's breaking the cycle of what they already know, but they're always up for something new. It's always an interesting thing for me, because I'll get chefs coming to us saying, ‘hey, what's new?’ ‘Well, actually, nothing. It's all been grown for thousands of years, but you just haven't used it yet.’ Everyone is getting a bit excited about purple sweet potatoes or Okinawa yams and they’ve been around forever. The Hawaiians use it for koi and stuff like that. Because of where it's grown, regionality and stuff, I guess it's not so easy to get those sorts of products over here. It's like a tomatillo; I guess in the States a box of tomatillos is a couple of dollars but over here, it's £25, which is $40 for a box of tomatillos, because we've got to import it. It's not a native product. We can grow it over here, but we can't go in the size and scale that we'd want to use it. So, it's always a bit tricky.
Retail plays a part as well. We only work in foodservice but, in general, the retailers get the first bite of the cherry with anything new because the grower knows he's going to get volume. So, we can go to a big superstore like Tesco or Sainsbury's or whatever, and they know it's going to hit 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 shops. For us, our largest restaurant group might be 600 restaurants, and that's really pushing it. So, the retailers will generally get their first bite at it. But, having said that, where foodservice comes in is when the product may be a little bit too niche for your average consumer, but chefs might love it.
Q: I was going to ask if the part the retailers play is that they say, ‘this is what customers want right now, this is what's hot. This is what people want.’ But I do understand that there is a difference between what somebody is going to buy to cook with themselves and what a chef will use in their own recipes is not going to be the same. So, there has to be that balance, I would assume.
A: Yeah, that's right. Chefs would be a bit more experimental and, I guess, when you go out to eat in a restaurant, you're probably looking for a better experience; you're looking for something you can't get at home. So, yeah, we'll all use carrots and we'll all use cauliflower and we'll all use broccoli, but it might be that the consumer doesn't necessarily want to buy something they're not sure how to process or how to use at home. They'd rather get it done professionally by a chef in a restaurant.
Q: How does working with a company like yours help the operator ensure things like food safety and sustainability and availablity?
A: We're very, very big into sustainability and all that stuff. So, we will vet the growers and the producers and the suppliers to make sure they're accredited, whether it be LEAF, which is Linking Environment And Farming, or British Red Tractor or Sedex, which is Supplier Ethical Data Exchange to make sure they're not using slave labor. There are a lot of checks and balances taking place.
It's an interesting thing: in this country, more and more and more pesticides are being taken away from growers and farmers, which is potentially a good thing. They use a lot more natural systems, but no farmer or grower really wants to grow unsustainably, because most of these guys are family businesses, and they want to pass it on to the next generation and the next generation and the next generation; a lot of growers are fourth, fifth, sixth generation farmers. So, it's in their interest to keep the soil healthy and to make sure they grow in a sustainable way. Otherwise, they've got nothing to pass on. So, we talk a lot about sustainability in this country and everywhere, really, but the majority of British growers have been doing it forever. It's just natural to them but, suddenly, it's a big buzzword and a watchword.
Q: Do you feel like sustainability is more important now than it used to be, just because of the awareness? Now they have to answer to the consumer on social media and there's more interaction between all the different players and their own customers.
A: There's a lot more awareness about it. It's always been a thing, but what we're seeing now is more social proof being required. In the old days, we’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s sustainable,’ and they’d go, ‘oh, great, it’s sustainable.’ Now, a lot of our customers go, ‘Well, how? Why? What makes it sustainable? What are they doing that's different?’ That's where you have to explain the picture. ‘This is what they're doing: they're using regenerative farming methods, crop rotation, and managing the soil in a better way.’ So, I wouldn't say it's more important now; it's always been important, but it's probably people a lot more aware about it now. And, obviously, the next generation, Greta Thunberg, and all that stuff, they're probably more aware than a good few years back. They're going to be the guardians going forward. So, yeah, there's much more awareness about it now, particularly amongst the younger guys.
Q: What are some of the current food trends that are happening right now in the UK that you've seen?
A: There were a few really about guests in restaurants, and I guess in retail: sustainable credentials is one that we've already mentioned; provenance is another, so there’s a big move for UK products now more so than ever. We still have to use imports, obviously we can't grow lemons and oranges and pineapple in the UK, but there's a big move towards the UK in season and the story behind whether it's British asparagus or British top fruit, apples and pears, or British grown brassicas.
That's also driving the next trend, which is seasonality. Because people are now looking at buying British more than ever before, they're getting more aware of seasonality. In this country, you can get strawberries for 12 months of the year, 365 days of the year but we don't grow them 365 days a year in the UK. Now, our season typically will be from March to October. So, it's trying to drive a little bit of that agenda and people are getting more aware. ‘Really, should we be eating strawberries on Christmas Day?’ You can, you can get them, but they won't taste very good, because they'll be flown in from Egypt and there'll be pretty hard and white shouldered and big green flags and all the other stuff. So, that's definitely a trend.
Premiumization is another trend. It's where people are upselling a bit. So, they're prepared to spend more in a restaurant, but they want better quality for it. And that's really been driven over here by the lockdowns that we've had through the pandemic, in that people have probably had more time at home, they've had more time to cook, they've had more time to learn about food. Suddenly they're realizing, ‘Actually, I could make spaghetti carbonara at home for £5 but I go to a restaurant and they're trying to charge me £15 for one bowl.’ So, now they want something a little better, a little different, a little more premium. That's a really big trend that we've seen a lot of. Then also, health, vegan, plant-based is huge. It's not huge in terms of menu takeups; it still only makes up about 3 or 5% in the UK but it's the noisiest bit. It’s the bit that people will Instagram about, like, ‘the amazing plant burger,’ or, ‘the most amazing vegan fish,’ or whatever it might be. But that's the bit that's making the most noise and restaurants are having to rise to the challenge.
Q: That health trend is definitely something that I've seen in the last few years. I live in California, so people here are generally trying to be healthy eaters and people are definitely more conscious than they used to be about their health and about what they're eating. I'm not sure if that's pandemic related, but that might be part of it because over the last couple of years we've really had to pay attention to our own health in a way maybe we didn't have to before. But it’s very interesting that you said that that doesn’t seem to be translating as much to restaurants. It seems like healthy eating may be more when people make it for themselves. Do they want something more decadent when they go off to a restaurant? Maybe going into a restaurant is almost like a cheat for them a little bit.
A: In general, that's right. I mean, you don't go to a restaurant for a salad that you can make at home, and pay a lot more money for it. There is still a move towards healthy eating and it's going to be pushed a little bit now, because in April all of our menus in the UK are going to have to declare the calorie count on every dish and the nutritional information needs to be available, how much fat, how much salt, how much sugar. So, some restaurants get a bit nervous about that and they're coming to us and saying, ‘what have you got that’s good and fresh and healthy and vibrant that we can chat about, rather than just a salad or just something plant-based?’ So, there is a move towards it. It's probably more of a domestic thing than a foodservice thing, the healthy thing, but it is definitely happening. But it’s some and some: you don't go to a dirty burger restaurant if you're health conscious; you might go to a plant-based restaurant, or you might go to someone that's got a good salad cart or whatever. But, yeah, it's generally an indulgent experience.
Q: When you identify that people are being healthier, for example, or whatever trends there are, how do you help the growers and producers stay ahead of that?
A: We work, by default, with a lot of healthy food producers, because we're working with people that grow plants, and whe’re working with people that pull fish out of the sea. Plants and fish are two of the healthiest things you can eat. It's our job in the middle, I guess, to translate that to the end user and give them menu solutions. We’re not teaching them how to cook because they're all good chefs anyway, but we might have access to more things than they would normally see in their day job because they're in their kitchen, they're focused on what they're doing, with tunnel vision, and they rely on guys like us. We do what we call food shows, where we'll bring the guys into our facility. We've got the seafood plant and the produce warehouse and then we'll cook dishes with them. If the brief is ‘look healthy’ then it might be that there's a lot of plant-based food on their market, there's a lot of produce on their market, there's a lot of simply cooked fish without heavy sauce on there. So, that's how we help to translate it because, at that point, we're dealing with guys that have got the raw product, so there's not much more they can do to make it healthier. By nature, it's healthy. So, it's our bit to be in the middle, to go ‘if you combine this fish, which is high in omega-3s, with this beetroot, which is high in fiber and antioxidant, and this carrot, which is high in vitamin D.’ That's the way we tend to do it.
Q: Is there a way that chefs and growers and producers should be working together to deliver that innovation to food? Are there things that they could be doing that they aren’t?
A: It's a tricky one. I get challenged with this a lot and I've just helped a friend of mine write a thesis on this for a college dissertation. It's probably fair to say a lot of growers are risk averse and I challenge them a lot with this because it's like, ‘we want to grow this same beetroot in the same volume that we've grown for years because we know we can make money out of it and we know we can sell it.’ When you go to them say, ‘Okay, can you go to some baby beetroots? Can you grow some candy striped beetroot? Can you do golden beetroot?’ they're a bit hesitant because it's like, ‘we don't know, because it's still fairly new.’ So, it's not going to be as much as you'd be growing before but take a chance. So, we do try and push our guys to do that, even if it's setting a few fields aside to try new stuff. They want to try stuff but they are risk averse. I mean, there's very tight margins in produce and it's tied up in the ground for a lot of time, it's in the ground for three months. As chefs, we always want new stuff, we want different stuff, we want exciting stuff. But, when you get to that point, a lot of guys don't want to commit to it. They don't want to say, I want new stuff and I'll take 10 pallets a week off you. It's like, ‘I want new stuff but I don't want any risk.’ So, it is a challenge but we are always pushing our growers to try something different or tell us what's different, because we may not know.
Q: As you said earlier, it can take but a decade to come up with a product, so that's a big investment for something you're not really sure people are going to want. How do they deal with that? If they've done something for 10 years and they come up with a product and then they show and and people go, ‘Oh, I don't really want that.’ What if the timing doesn't work?
A: It happens. It's true. Baby kale is a big thing now, little baby kale leaves for salads; when they first came out, people just didn't understand it, because it was three times the price of regular kale. and it took a long while for that to take off. But, now, it's pretty mainstream and you see quite a lot. So, it’s about keeping the faith, that's the thing, and being prepared to take a chance on stuff. But, as I said, even if it's trying stuff that already exists, but growing it in the UK, that is sometimes challenging. A good example of that is a few years ago, I was working for a different produce supplier and we were constantly going to our beetroot grower saying, ‘we're bringing all this candy striped beetroot and golden beetroot from France every week. Why don't you grow it?’ and they went ‘Oh, no, it’s a flash in the pan. It's a gimmick, it won’t last.’ And it went on for three years where we were still selling it, and it was like, ‘that's money going to France, not to your farm.’ And then it was, ‘okay, fine. And they started to grow it and then it's like, ‘actually, yeah, that was a good idea.’ It's still a tiny proportion versus regular beetroot but they can command a premium for that because it's slightly different.
There is a consensus that increasing produce consumption is important as a public health tool. Some look to varietal development to create more flavorful produce as a tool in this battle. Indeed this might work but it can take a long time. A full size pear tree can take six to nine years to begin yielding fruit and that might not be the variety that ultimately prevails. So to test varieties and plant and harvest from commercial scale orchards – it can take decades.
As a result, the hope of increasing produce consumption depends heavily on culinary technique. Creating dishes that use more produce and that are made appetizing by cooking methods. The foodservice/catering sector is absolutely vital because they can introduce techniques and methods, flavors and cuts, that consumers will not only enjoy at restaurants but will look to emulate at home.
The basic challenge for the produce industry when it comes to boosting consumption is that our innovations have only tended to replace existing usage. So all the sudden kale becomes hot and consumption of kale increases ten fold – but all it means is that the steak that was served with a side of spinach, now is served with a side of kale, the spinach salad now becomes a kale salad. Total sales and total consumption of produce is unchanged. Only culinary change can alter consumption patterns. Instead of a giant steak with a little vegetable on the side, you have to move people to, say, a stir fry, rich in vegetables, where a little meat is added to provide a certain flavor.
At this year’s edition of the London Produce Show and Conference we were super excited that Sysco and Fresh Direct stepped in to host a hospitality lounge on the floor and our Culinary Theatre, helping to support a culinary team working to develop appealing and delicious produce centric recipes with the goal of using them to help boost consumption.
Ian’s thought leadership, is another contribution to the industry and one for which we are grateful.
Come and engage with Ian and see the direction the culinary world can engage in to help us all move the needle on produce consumption.
You can register, at no charge for The London Produce show, right here.
And if you want to move to grab a last minute booth or sponsorship. Just let us know here.
Be part of the movement to boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables – join us at The London Produce Show and Conference!
Are British consumers willing to pay more for locally produced foods? Will they buy imported products when their desired food is out of season in the UK? Do food and nutrition campaigns such as British Food Fortnight and Veganuary get their messages across? Do consumers feel a brand loyalty toward supermarket chains that demonstrate support for British growers and producers, or is price and convenience a bigger factor? Is supporting local farmers a bigger priority for consumers than buying organic? Consumers buy products with a quality assurance mark on the label, but do they know what standards go behind that seal? Are British supermarkets supporting locals or bringing in more foreign products? How can supermarket executives get behind the fresh produce industry in the UK to increase British foods’ branding message and increase sales?
These are some of the questions that will be answered by Jan England and Clare Otridge, managing director and account director, respectively, at England Marketing, who will be presenting “Do Consumers Still Love British Food?” at the London Produce Show 2022. The mother-daughter marketing team in Cambridgeshire, England, has been working with Love British Food, a non-profit campaign to promote consumer support and consumption of locally produced foods.
Jan England expressed excitement in having the opportunity to talk with the Perishable Pundit, as well as sharing her recent consumer research findings at the London Produce Show. We asked Linda Brockman, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to find out more:
Q: Jan, we’ve been wowed by your research in the past. What inspired this specific research on British consumers and their local preferences?
JE: The Love British Food campaign has been around about 20 years. We do a lot of work with consumers on behalf of our clients, but we can’t share that information because it is commercially sensitive. So occasionally we do this pro bono, so we can share the findings. It’s an excuse to go to our panel and get some original data that we can use ourselves. Through Covid and over lockdown, we built a panel to about 2,000 people. We did a freebie for Love British Food, on the basis that we can use the findings ourselves, hence this report. So we are going to be presenting relevant bits of the report and what it means for the fresh produce industry. We are basing the presentation on our recent research project, “Do Consumers Still Love British Food?”
Q: What does your panel look like?
A: They are all foodies who are passionate about what they are eating and how it is produced. Our panelists are really engaged, and they love giving their opinions. One recently wrote a 600-word essay and provided a lot of useful insight. They have a bit more knowledge about the food industry, so we get much better responses. We started out small by asking friends and family to participate in focus groups, but when Covid hit we lost quite a few people. We couldn’t gather and we had to close down our taste testing hub. We decided to do more online, so my daughter Clare and the younger team, who are very much into social media, got the word out that way. We recruited more and have expanded into Scotland and Wales, so it is a nationwide project. Depending on the demographics needed by a client, England Marketing can start to segment it more efficiently, so if someone says, “I want to hear from people, age 35-45 with young kids,” we can start to do that and did that for this project.
Q: I saw a list of national food days celebrated in England. Apparently, National Veggie Month is celebrated in March in the UK. There are many other examples, like UK Picnic Week and Fair Trade Fortnight. Do these campaigns work to raise awareness regarding nutrition and health?
A: In the UK we have a lot of campaigns to promote “This Food” Week or “That Food” Week, but half the time, I don’t think consumers get the message. For 20 years, Love British Food has been doing a British Food Fortnight, which encourages people to choose British food when they are grocery shopping or eating out for two weeks in September and October. When England Marketing surveyed consumers to see how much awareness there was of the British Food campaign, and other campaigns, there wasn’t much.
Q: How can the industry increase awareness if the present method isn’t that effective?
A: While people care about what they are eating, they don’t have the time to research the foods they consume. When they go to the supermarket they are usually in a hurry. My opinion is that there are too many campaigns of this ilk in the UK. I think the food industry and the fresh produce industry need to collaborate more and possibly work more closely with the retailers to get the message out there. The industry is quite fragmented. Fresh produce does not have much branding – we haven’t got promotional boards like you do in the States. And there is no marketing budget. Without a brand, it is quite hard to push the credentials. With so many campaigns, the message gets watered down and it becomes confusing for the consumer. Consumers are willing to pay more for British products, but the supermarkets need to tell more of the story.
Occasionally farmers have benefitted from government funding but on the whole, the funding is going toward admin or a bit of support, but not helping with marketing. Growers with the AHDB (Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board) decided to disband the horticultural aspect of the organization because they didn’t feel the horticulture arm was doing anything useful. They would rather spend their levy money to promote themselves because the industry just wasn’t getting behind them.
Q: Were any of your findings surprising?
A: I don’t think there are any real surprises for anyone in the industry. I think the whole food industry is broken in the UK and consumers have echoed that. We touched on it in our report and we will discuss that in our presentation. With the war in the Ukraine, prices are about to go up hugely, which is going to put a lot of people in a difficult position with food and fuel. We don’t have a strategy in place that supports what is about to happen globally now.
Q: What can the British government do?
A: Consumers want the government to take more of a stand on food. Henry Dimbleby from the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, wrote the Food Strategy and published the second half of that last summer, but the government hasn’t reported on that. At COP26, the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, food wasn’t really covered at all and it should have been. Even consumers are saying there should be more done to promote British food at a local and national government level. Local councils should be insisting that we use local food to supply local schools and the hospitals, but the government hasn’t put that in place.
Many years ago we did a global series of consumer focus groups in the English speaking world. The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland and a few other countries.
I moderated the focus groups and, of course, didn’t let on my role in the industry.
Some of the groups were in the south of England quite close to the English Channel. In running the groups we found a strong preference for local. We also found a much more sophisticated consumer than we have in America, with relatively deep knowledge of issues such as sending local produce to distant depots for redistribution.
But we also found that in the mind of the British consumer the definition of “local” had virtually nothing to do with geography!
In fact after consumers in the group would give speeches about the importance of local — we would ask for clarification. “So, you want a great deal of produce to come from the north of France, some 30 milies away across the Channel in order to reduce carbon footprints etc.” The group participants would raise their voices, in unison, saying, “No, no, that is not what we mean.” In fact they considered produce from the hinterlands of Scotland, 800 miles away, to be their version of local and produce across the Channel in France to be foreign and distant.
Something tells me this presentation with Jan and Clare will be extremely revealing!
Come to The London Produce Show and Conference and gain insight from this new research. Admission is free and you can register here.
A few opportunities left for sponsorship and exhibiting. If you want to grab an opportunity let is know here!
We look forward to seeing you at ExCeL for th e relaunch of The London Produce Show and Conference!
For many years Gustavo Yentzen has organized a Latin American themed panel discussion at The Global Trade Symposium of The New York Produce Show and Conference and one of the things that has become clear is that so many things have secondary effects that impact producing countries.
With war raging in the Ukraine and global sanctions against Russia, the situation is, as Winston Churchill said once before of Russia:
"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
Yet, in the meantime produce is a supply and demand business and if produce destined for Moscow won’t be going there — because of restrictions, because there are no boats, because Russian credit is shaky — those items will seek to find other markets. This will lead to price declines and other issues.
How this will all play out is unclear and the war overlays on top of already dynamic changes in the role of Chile and Peru in the Latin American export scene.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Las Condes, Santiago, Chile
Q: We truly value the unique partnership between our companies over the years, and the in-depth international experience and multi-faceted expertise you bring to the industry. From New York to Amsterdam to London, you are a welcoming presence throughout, whether presenting or moderating lively debates, you emanate an innate ability to bridge diverse cultures, through a masterful grasp of the critical issues facing global trade.
Let’s give attendees a sneak preview for LPS22.
A: The first thing I’ll be presenting is an analysis on how exports are changing coming from South America. The stagnation of Chile and how Peru has taken advantage.
I’ll look at trends in Peru and other countries in Latin America that have grown and have changed their share of exports to different markets.
The second thing, I’ll analyze the impact of the war in Ukraine on different countries in Latin America.
What happens to fruit that was destined for the Ukraine and for Russia.
In some countries the impact is minimal and in others the impact is very, very powerful. The analysis will explore which are the countries and the products that are being affected and possible solutions maybe.
In addition, I’ll present a special mini-case study on the impact on Ecuadorian bananas.
I don’t want to share all the details right now.
Q: OK. It sounds like there’s a lot to unravel. Could you provide some key points, in the context of your background and far-reaching business platform?
A: I’m in sync with Jim Prevor’s mission to share news and information globally. The London Produce Show is an exceptional venue to do that, and to join with industry leaders and decision-makers from around the world to exchange solutions.
As for myself, I’ve been working in the industry for the last 21 years. I started my company 16 years ago. We have three portals for the produce industry that reach 187 countries.
Q: How do you navigate the diversity of 187 countries in the relevancy and prioritization of information, and within the different segments of the supply chain? Not to mention the language and cultural nuances. How do you manage customization and competitive interests, with the compatibility on some major issues that necessitate industry solutions?
A: We must understand the varying needs and vantage points in every market, every country, and every continent. It’s necessary to adapt information to a U.S. retailer and U.S. supplier, which is different from what a European company would want to receive, for instance. Second, we’re always exploring which market needs specific information we could provide to them. At the same time, there is information that’s interesting for all the markets; the strategy of a big retailer in the world, a significant merger or acquisition of a major player that would have relevance to any leader world-wide.
Adjusting to specific markets is one of the challenges that we face, and if we can do it, we will bring a special media that could cover that market. For example, we launched Vision Fruitcola (Fruit Vision) focused solely on the export industry in Chile and Peru, not the production side, to cover their interests, and the strategies of the big leaders in our industry, and what they are seeing for the mid-to long-term in the markets. So, the need to adapt is permanent and the need to understand how the industry is changing is also permanent.
Q: How transformative are the changes confronting the industry now?
A: The biggest changes...well, there are many factors outside the industry shaping what’s going on.
The Russia-Ukraine War is one of the aspects no doubt. There are changes effecting the external happenings post pandemic, like the changes in logistics are having huge impacts on the fruits being exported from South America to markets like Asia, the U.S. and Europe. It’s not only the capacity to produce and sell and trade fruit professionally, right now we have challenges that go beyond that, such as logistics, and climate change that are definitely affecting the way production is being done.
So, we need to pay attention and we’re always trying to understand if the changes that are happening are long term or just specific challenges. In the case of logistics, what we’ve covered and understand, we have at least the next 24 to 36 months the conditions are going to remain and be very difficult for the exporters in Latin America. Lack of ships, lack of containers... that are obliging the industry to work together, even among competing companies, to secure spots, or to negotiate spots with the shipping lines, to make sure that the products arrive on time to the markets.
Q: Is that notable that competitors are joining forces to negotiate shipping contracts? This certainly is not the first time the produce industry’s complex and perishable supply chain has created dynamics enjoining competitors... While out of necessity, this action seems to portend broader applications and rewards...
A: Right now, that is what’s happening, and we’re seeing this as a trend. We saw this years ago with cherries, where companies gathered and decided to generate agreements as an industry, as the cherry industry, with the main shipping lines. It was called the Cherry Express, and later evolved to be called the China Express. These are boats that have a secure compromise of fruit that will get to the market in a certain amount of time. That meant it generated a huge reduction in transit time from Chile to China, going from 32-35 days to 20-21. And there are other countries benefiting from that. Argentinian cherries are crossing the border to Chile by truck and loading on the Cherry Express being sent to China.
I guess what I like, is the effects of working together that go beyond generating benefits to a specific company, beyond a group of companies, and generally impacting the whole industry. And not only one industry but impacting other industries.
For example, now these grapes going from Chile to China get on board the former Cherry Express, now the China Express, and can get to China in the same 21 days. Those are external changes that are affecting the industry and the industry is transforming the challenge to an opportunity. And that’s what we need to learn from.
Q: Could you share some insights now on the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
A: The main challenge is for the countries that had big volumes considered for China. Because even if countries had no problem selling to Russia with no restrictions, there’s not an embargo for the South American countries, but technically there is, because there are no boats to take them. When you have the majority of your fruit going to one market, and you’re not able to get it there, that’s a serious problem.
Q: How is Chile positioned?
A: Chile is not suffering. Chile has always been very diversified in its shipments to the world, and to Europe, because of some particularities with how the Russian market works, Chile is not that exposed.
There are some other countries that are exposed, like Colombia and Ecuador. And Costa Rica as well with their bananas will be more affected. The challenge for them is that the cost of bananas does not permit huge changes of shipments to other markets.
When you have a product like cherries that has a higher margin of return per pound or per kilo, it allows you to pay a higher price for shipments. That’s not the case with bananas. It’s a pennies market per pound or per kilo. So, the options are still very limited.
And the companies that will benefit from it are the ones which have the secure spaces in the boats that are limited. And again, the challenge we have as an industry. For every challenge there’s an opportunity. But in this case the opportunity is going to be in the hands of very limited players.
Q: What about labor issues?
A: You really want me to cry, Mira. Labor issues are a big challenge in Latin America. There are labor challenges for all the countries. After the pandemic, not everyone had the same motivation to go back to doing the same kind of work they were doing before. Plus, in the case of Chile and Peru, particularly, there were incentives by the government to help people in the beginning of the pandemic, that disincentivized going back to work. That has changed in Chile with new laws and incentives that encourage people to go back to work to receive support from government. In the past, if people didn’t have jobs, or they were willing to work illegally in the black market, the industry was in a big problem because it was so regulated with traceability and protocol, growers and exporters couldn’t employ these workers. The government realized there was a problem and created another type of incentive for people who had gotten a job in a certain amount of time. And that meant people started going back to their jobs.
Q: Is Brexit something you’ll be discussing?
A: Not really. We have bigger problems. I think the pandemic ended with Putin. COVID stopped being a global problem because the focus shifted, and now we’re all concerned there’s going to be a major war between NATO and Russia. And making sure that other countries don’t support Russia, like China.
Q: I guess that dramatically elevates the expression, ‘You have to pick your battles.’ What are your greatest concerns, and what is your advice going forward?
A: It all depends on how long the war in Ukraine lasts, I would say, and that’s impossible to know right now. It’s difficult to have that information. My fear is that in the process, some banana growers that were already getting hurt in the market. They have the biggest challenge, to get retailers to pay more for the fruit that they are selling. But retailers don’t want to pass on that additional logistical cost to the consumer. That already had impacted different industries coming from South America. Now they are going to be more effected because the market they could go to, Russia, is not going to be available. So, it’s a double effect.
Q: Maybe a triple effect. I don’t know how it’s impacting all markets, but in the U.S., inflation is higher than it’s been in 40 years...
A: Yes, additionally there is skyrocketing inflation, that all links back to the increased costs in transportation to all the world markets. At the same time, you see the record years that the shipping lines are having. There’s a saying in France that I like, behind every big banquet, there is always somebody that killed the potatoes.
In this case, unfortunately it’s going to be the growers from South America. This is affecting countries like Ecuador and Columbia, or any country that is having major exposure to Russia. But for other countries like Chile and Peru, they’re not being majorly affected because they can always send their products to other markets. The challenge for them is increasing costs of transportation. That’s the main challenge, and it’s a huge challenge. But they don’t have the markets closed. That’s the point. Their exposure to Russia is very minimal. So, if you have 3 or 4 or 5 percent of your products to Russia, it’s not a major impact that you’re having, and you can divert that fruit to other markets. You’re not going to make as much as you were making but you can divert and increase in the different markets a little and you will survive.
The problem is when you have 50-60 percent going to one market. It’s the old saying, if you have one or two clients, when one has a problem, you have a problem.
Q: So, diversification is very important then?
A: Absolutely, especially in our industry which changes every day.
Q: You know John Pandol, who will be doing a quick-fire Q&A session with Jim Prevor at the London Show. He believes the industry is overplanting certain crops, such as grapes and blueberries, leading to a proliferation and over supply of volume for market demand. What is your view?
A: I wouldn’t go to that extreme. The consumption of grapes and the consumption of blueberries have grown tremendously through the years, maybe there’s a point where there needs to be a balance there, but there are still markets where people are still eating very few of those two products. In the U.S., it’s a huge market for blueberries, the amount per capita, but in Europe it’s still far away from that. So, there are opportunities to grow and expand. You need to build new markets, diversify, invest in market growth, etc. Our industry doesn’t always make it a priority to expand the market.
Q: You’ll have a chance to talk with retailers at the London Produce Show. What’s your key message?
A: My advice to retailers is, this is the moment to pass the increased costs to consumers. I know they are already suffering because of the inflation and the increased costs, but if not, there will be companies, and growers that will disappear or suffer heavily.
Value-added products, other innovations...all that can be explored but not in the scale of time that we need now. The problem is when you have abrupt closing of the market as we have now, it gives you no time to react. The banana exporters are in contact with different markets, trying to secure more products to China and to the markets they’re already supplying. There’s going to be price reductions no doubt. We’re going to be sending more fruit to markets. But there is a need. We need to move that product.
What a crazy industry! We are now pleading with retailers to raise the price they charge for fresh fruits and vegetables, a move certain to depress consumer demand – as we fear, otherwise, the retailers will be merciless on the price they are willing to pay in order to continue providing low prices to consumers.
Come and join this robust discussion on the supply source from Latin America. Where does the product not going to Ukraine and Russia end up? And at what price? What other supply sources will be impacted and will retailers benefit? What about consumers?
You can register, and attend this important workshop, at no cost, just sign up for The London Produce Show and Conference right here.
There are a few opportunities for sponsorships and exhibiting if you act fest! Let us know your interest here.
Come join with Gustavo Yentzen and help the industry, and your organization, to plan for the brave new world!
Steve Walpole has had a storied career in the culinary world.
Today, his business, Steve Walpole Ltd., offers a range of culinary services tailored to meet client-specific needs whether for small start-up projects or big name brand name operations.
Walpole has been a food and cooking enthusiast since he started a Saturday restaurant job at the age of 15. He later attended the prestigious Westminster Kingsway College. Soon after beginning his foodservice career, he accepted a position at Britain’s House of Commons, rising from Commis to Senior Chef de Partie. He gained experience throughout the foodservice sector, including as Executive Chef at Corney & Barrow Bars, Senior Executive Development Chef position at Gate Gourmet, doing work with British Airways among other carriers, and as head of food for the Ugo Food Group. He also took time to return to Westminster Kingsway College, this time as a Chef Lecturer.
He has gained a host of college qualifications throughout his career and kudos including as Awards of Excellence winner in 2000, parade de chefs medals and roux scholarship finalist.
Walpole is an active member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and was a committee member of the Craft Guild of Chefs. He regularly appears on the judging panel for various prestigious awards competitions and shows such as The Annual Awards of Excellence with the Academy of Culinary Arts, The Craft Guild of Chefs and The Salon Culinaire International in London.
As Steve will be running the Chef’s Stage of The London Produce Show and Conference, we asked Steven Loeb, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine to find out more:
Steve Walpole Ltd
Q: What are your plans for the London Produce Show and how are you going to use fruits and vegetables to excite participants?
A: With things getting back to a sense of normality and opening up again, I am looking forward to seeing what new and exciting produce is available as well as how we have changed some of our thinking about ingredients and food. For me, the theatre is going to be a focal point on how to champion fruits and vegetables as the hero ingredient, not just a side thought. How to use modern and classic techniques such as smoking, pickling, salting to make the most out of wonderful produce.
Q: In your career, you have seen various sides of the foodservice business, so how are you looking at trends now and what have you noticed that may be flying a little below the radar?
A: With the way media and food is so readily accessible, not much gets missed these days, which is wonderful as it's very easy to pick up on trends and what's happening. But what I have noticed is how sustainability, biodiversity and the ethical side of produce is becoming the focal point: more local and seasonal products, the steer towards organic or better quality produce. This has been a big part of the flexi movement and the rise of plant-based eating. It’s not just animal farming that has its issues. Its well documented how things like avocados, almonds can raise issues on water usage, labor and other issues related to ethical farming.
Q. How are larger foodservice trends affecting the way restaurants in the U.K. use fruits and vegetables in their menu development?
A: In the UK, we have seen a massive shift in menu design and development across all sectors with the changes to people’s eating habits. Vegan and vegetarian options are no longer the poorer relatives but in most cases the showcase with such a range of cuisines available and the rise of QSR and fine casual dining. That means being inventive and showcasing flavours and textures as well as global trends. So there is more focus on balancing dishes with fruits and vegetables that enhance the flavours and textures, as well as bring colour and variety. It’s a great time to be in food right now. For me, I feel we have turned a corner in accepting that food is about eating balanced, better quality and, most of all, having choice
Q: In what ways are trends in fruits and vegetables having an influence on how restaurants use them?
A: You will see lots of innovation coming from restaurants with named or unique varieties of produce, seasonality and provenance to try and boost innovation. Thanks to the plant-based movement, we are seeing more items used as alternatives to meat such as the humble mushroom or banana blossom, and more pickled, cured and smoked items to help bring new dimensions to dishes. It’s also helping to push the healthier and lighter side to menus.
Q: What consumer trends are influencing the use of produce at restaurants in the U.K., trends such as wellness and changing tastes among the public?
A: It’s the younger generations driving the current trends around food right now. It’s all about new and different flavours, fusing cuisines like Mexican and Japanese, Indian and Italian, vegan, flexitarian, dairy free. And sustainability. It’s about ethics and making a difference. So fresher, less processed items are the go to. Tastes have changed as the choice has increased. With everything from Korean kimchi to Peruvian ceviche at almost a touch of a smartphone. The food scene is having to strive harder to be different or be consistently good.
Q: How critical is produce in your developing dishes and menus as a chef?
A: Produce is so important and sometimes people forget what simple products we use on a day to day basis actually make the food memorable. How the sweetness from a carrot or sautéed onion can change a sauce. How wild garlic can give a colour and taste that can blow your taste buds away. Herbs in drinks, baking plums or peaches with spices, the list is endless. It’s understanding tastes, what's bitter, sweet, sour, hot, meaty, earthy, salty, how cooking or preparation technique can change the taste, the textures and the uses. For me, it's far more exciting to visit a place like the New Covent Garden Market and see 10 varieties of tomatoes or apples and realize they all taste differently or have different textures than to see a uniform presentation of more limited variety at a supermarket.
Q: What does produce provide that particularly appeals to you in the dimensions such as flavour, texture, colour, compatibility with other important or trending foods?
A: Food is about combinations and marriages of flavour. So what I can get from produce such as herbs, vegetables and fruits is a myriad of things that can bring something different to a dish from a simple parsnip crisp to a beetroot caviar. Because you can purée, roast, steam, dehydrate, pickle, salt, eat raw or juiced means we can experiment and play with textures from gels to foams, barbecue to liquid nitrogen. It's honestly like being the Willy Wonker of fruits and vegetables. But suddenly you can have one product made into four different things all with different flavours and tastes. So with the current trend of being more sustainable and utilizing more of a product and less waste, fruit and veg come into their own, from stocks to turning trimmings into garnishes or additions.
Q: In your diverse experience, you have been able to experience a range of different perspectives on food, from instructing student chefs to developing upscale cuisine that can be finally prepared and presented on an airplane, so has your thinking about the development of dishes and menus, and the use of fruits and vegetables, change significantly in the different roles you've had to fill or have you certain basic criteria that you adjust to circumstances?
A: Due to the nature of some of my roles and the clients and students I have trained or worked with over the years, I have simplified my approach. I am a lot more aware of quality over quantity, and less can be more. Food can sometimes be so complicated and confusing. Some chefs try too hard to showcase techniques and multi-layered flavours, and that can overshadow the products or the intention of the dish. Using products at the right time of year or that are more local can make a huge difference on taste and cost.
Q: Do you think fundamentally differently about how to use fruits and vegetables in your dishes now than you did when you started out or is it more a matter of adapting to experience and changing tastes?
A: I would say it’s a number of factors, the biggest being how quality and variety have improved vastly. More focus has been put on all aspects of produce, from farming to sourcing. Therefore, how we use produce means more care and attention goes into getting the best out of it. I would also say as food has become simplified: It means using less commodities for garnishes or finishing, food trends changing and learning from other cuisines about how food techniques vary or products are used. That has greatly changed how and why I use produce.
Q: You started out working in kitchens from a young age, so what did you bring from your background, youth and/or early experience to your subsequent work as a chef?
A: I am lucky as I am from a generation that didn't have a lot of the variety and choice we have today, so we learnt that you looked forward to spring for peas, asparagus, summer was always berries and broad beans. Autumn was the best, as it’s roots, mushrooms and squashes. So it was understanding about eating the best products at the best time. Also, we had to learn how to make the most out of products and produce as cost and wastage was always top priority. Therefore I am always conscious of waste, and why eat strawberries in December?
Q: Did you have particular teachers or role models that helped you along the way?
A: So many, and I could write pages, but my first kitchen job was in a restaurant called Taylors in Romford. It was run by a Cypriot family who did French cuisine as a day to day menu. But they did Greek nights every so often, so they took me to Cyprus, and I got to see traditional food being made and oranges and lemons growing in their garden, which inspired me so much. One of my role models is a chef called David Dorricott from when I worked at the House of Commons. He was the chef that taught me technique is a skill but understanding food is art. I realized I had spent 10 years learning how to cook but not really why we cook things or pair things together. So this was the light bulb moment that changed my direction, and I wanted to learn and understand the why of food, not just the how to cook.
Q: As you emerged as a professional chef, how did you develop your goals and pursue your career prospects?
A: It’s funny as I didn't set any goals or career path as such. I literally just wanted to cook and learn about food, but then wanting to learn all aspects from kitchen to pastry, French to Indian. I started to also enjoy sharing my knowledge and skills to help teach people. That's when I suppose the goals came in. I have worked with some amazing people that have taught me a lot and pushed me to keep going. Food is something we all need, but to be able to cook and make people happy through eating is a great feeling. So why not make a living out of it. Not many people get to do a job they love, but I do. Every day is different, and I can be in a different cuisine or country. I have been lucky but I have also made sure that I keep evolving and moving, because things move and change.
Q: Has travel been an important part of your professional journey and what have you encountered, especially regarding fruits and vegetables and their use in cooking, as you went from place to place?
A: This had the biggest impact on my culinary journey and knowledge of food, having been and cooked in most corners of the world from India to the U.S., Europe to the Far East. I became more aware that with cookery and food, it wasn't always about technique but understanding. India was a revelation as regionally the use of spices and produce changed. Cookery and different influences from the Persians add something different from the north to the south. They use vegetables and fruits in so many ways and can make them taste amazing from tandoori to da. It made me go back to basics to understand the simplicity of food.
Q: What lessons did you learn early on in your career that helped propel you on your journey?
A: I learnt to put the effort in early and try and do as many things as I could to expand my skills and knowledge. That way I could use these skills to move on and up, as well as showcase my culinary talent in competitions and trade shows.
Q: You seem to relish variety, given all the different turns your career has taken, so do you feel you were evolving in your career or did you deliberately look for new challenges?
A: I think you always set yourself challenges, some conscious and some subconsciously. For me, it was about: What could I learn and what can I bring to the table? I didn't want to stay still, as you can easily get comfortable or be happy at a set level, which is fine, but for me, I wanted to push on. Don’t get me wrong, some roles have been a huge challenge and out of my comfort zone, but sometimes you have to do it to test yourself.
Q: What do you have on your plate these days, so to speak, and what are you looking forward to in your career right now?
A: Currently, I run my consultancy business, so I have a few clients here in the UK and abroad. I feel I have gotten to a point that I can now look at what projects I want to do. I am enjoying the variety. I can be making plant based meals for airlines one day to alcohol jelly shots the next. I work across all sectors from retail to foodservice, airlines to oil rigs. So it can be fun. The great thing is it doesn't matter if it’s fine dining or a ready meal, I get to work with food and produce. The challenge is making things great for the price or for the clients requirements.
Q: Do you have procurement preferences as regards produce, such as organic, local, exotic, etc., or do your preferences change depending on what role you have taken?
A: I will always start with the best I can within the price brackets I am working in. I feel it's always better to come down the ladder than try and go back up. It’s difficult because different areas have different focuses, but the main goal is the same: I can still do great things with any produce. It's just about what you do.
Q: In terms of your work at the show, can you detail some of your particular plans and how you will approach your efforts there?
A: Our efforts with the theatre are simple: We want to show people how you can have fun with produce and be creative with not much effort. We will be showing some recipes and dishes that highlight fruit and vegetables as the show piece. I will be calling on some chefs to help at the theatre to show how they are revolutionizing what they do and increasing the amount of produce items on their menus. We have some quality items to taste and sample, which will hopefully create some food for thought.
Q: What should people be on the lookout for in terms of how you will use produce?
A: Hopefully the use of techniques to enhance flavours. I have some secret weapons. I will be bringing some amazing products from Besmoke to bring out a Smokey flavour. We will be using my global influences to make dishes that will be flavours and tastes from different regions. The main thing is, you will leave with a new found love for a simple fruit or vegetable, and of course a little insight into my crazy food world.
Running a kitchen is rarely an easy task, but culinary techniques are the only way to change dietary patterns in the short and medium term.
We’ve made a major three day investment at The London Produce Show and Conference to develop and present enticing recipes designed to facilitate an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Come be a part of this effort. Registration is free and you can register right here.
Last chance to pick up a stand or sponsorship as well. Just let us know here.
The effort to boost produce consumption begins anew at The London Produce Show and Conference!
According to the CDC, an estimated 8% of children in the United States suffer from food allergies, equalling roughly 1 in 13 children, or about 2 students per classroom.
When Nathalie Newman’s son was born with severe allergic reactions, she spent over a year trying to get him a diagnosis. To help other parents who were in the same boat, the award winning Allergy and Nutrition expert, and founded intolerantgourmand.com to be a resource for parents of children with dietary restrictions. The site features support, guidance, advice, useful tips and tricks and recipes, some of which she will be sharing on stage at the London Produce Show.
Nathalie is well respected in the allergies and free-from arena for her fresh approach to working and living with allergies. Highly motivated and with an ambition to succeed, thanks to her son’s ongoing battle with severe allergies and eczema, Nathalie is a driving force in improving the public understanding of allergies and intolerances.
She regularly features on camera for campaigns with BBC Breakfast, Rip Off Britain, CBBC Newsround, Channel 5 News, Sky News and The Victoria Derbyshire Show, as well as extensive press coverage in The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Telegraph, various magazines, and radio interviews on TalkRadio, BBC Northamptonshire, BBC London Radio, Radio 5 Live, LBC and more as a leading voice on living successfully with allergies.
Nathalie is a full time freelance brand consultant, partner executive, project manager, writer, and presenter, food developer and photographer, with her work appearing in a number of publications. She regularly works with large brands to produce original recipes with free-from ingredients at the heart, as well as bringing new concepts to market and project managing teams involved.
She also works with brands, presenting recipe demonstrations, hosting live Q&A’s, consulting, teaching the day to day skills of living successfully with multiple allergies, and more.
She spoke to us about why she launched the Intolerant Gourmand, how attitudes toward children with allergies is shifting, and what she plans to talk about at the upcoming show.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your career.
A: I’ve been fortunate to have a career that has enabled me to support and help others throughout. From working in the NHS for several years, to working in recruitment, project management, and also in training, before setting up Intolerant Gourmand over 8 years ago. All of the skills I learned along the way provided a fantastic grounding to support the work I do now. After the struggle of getting my son back to a stable and well state, I now have a career that was built around regular hospital stays and appointments, all whilst supporting the allergy community, lecturing and educating the medical profession at conferences all over Europe, presenting and compering at leading events, working with global brands to showcase their products through recipes, and working with the media to provide a positive light on living with allergies and the associated challenges that arise along the way.
Q: Your company, The Intolerant Gourmand, caters to children suffering from allergy, eczema and asthma. Can you give me the story behind why you launched the site and why this is something that’s important to you?
A: My son suffered from several severe allergic reactions as a baby, 3 times in particular were very serious, and we weren’t sure if he would make it. Thankfully he did, and he went on to have extensive allergy testing where he was diagnosed with multiple severe allergies at the age of 16 months. His diet required a complete overhaul, and during my research, I realized very quickly that very little actually existed to support gluten and dairy free diets or indeed living with severe allergies, and those with additional requirements. After I learned how to cook safely for my son, I set up a blog to share the recipes I was creating and to share the tips and tricks I’d learned along the way. It quickly became very popular, gaining thousands of views each month. It was at this point that I started to work on a freelance basis, consulting for brands, writing articles, creating recipes, and presenting.
I’m known for saying ‘allergies are life changing, but they shouldn’t be life defining’ and my son is living proof of this. Through everything I learned, I have been able to give him the tools he needs to live positively with allergies, whilst also enabling other families to learn how we’ve done it too. I wanted to make sure that nothing would hold my son back, and to give him the opportunity to do anything he wants to, whilst remaining as safe as possible given his allergies. To empower someone with allergies to trust food again is very special, and I’m humbled to be able to do this as my job.
Q: It’s sad that such a resource wasn’t previously available. Why do you think that is?
A: There has been a huge shift in the last few years. Where allergies were deemed to be fairly rare previously, better education, understanding, awareness and research about allergies has meant that the food industry has been able to adapt accordingly and provide ever increasing amounts of ‘safe’ products for those living free from diets. The food industry has seen a huge rise over the past few years. In 2018 it was valued at $90.1 billion globally and is expected to reach $161.2 billion by 2026.
Q: Have you seen attitudes changing toward children with allergies and other problems that cause food restrictions?
A: Where before children might have been misdiagnosed, there is much better understanding and signposting towards possible allergies being the cause of symptoms that children present with. As knowledge improves, and free from product ranges continue to increase, there is a real shift to a more positive attitude now.
Q: You’re offering support, guidance, advice, and recipes. Where do you get the information from? Is it through partnerships?
A: The information comes from my own learnings, and the tips and tricks I’ve learned through our journey, as well as the various partnerships I have had with clients I work with. All recipes I post or create for clients are rigorously tested before being published to make sure they truly work. In the beginning, there were many failed recipes that ended up in the bin, but as my knowledge grew and my understanding of how alternatives could be used improved, recipes became a success and it grew from that. I will never post or share anything I haven’t experienced or tested myself, as I want to make sure the information available is correct and accurate. The same goes for brands. I need to trust them before I will work with them.
Q:Do you allow parents to connect to each other through The Intolerant Gourmand and share tips with each other?
A: The website isn’t a chatting site, more of an information site, but my social media channels actively encourage the community that’s been built up to interact with each other and share any tips, recipes and new product finds so that the whole community can benefit from shared knowledge.
Q: Tell me about what you will be discussing at the London Produce Show.
A: Steve and I plan to showcase several recipes each day, using a number of different ingredients. Some recipes will be vegetarian/vegan/free from, and some will be made with no restrictions. All will be created using classic techniques to really showcase all the produce we use. We will also talk about how to adapt the recipes to be tailored according to dietary requirements, whilst also discussing how the food industry has had to adapt over the past 2 years to survive, and now thrive again. We will also touch on Natasha’s Law and the impact this has had on prepacked food.
Q: Why is it important for produce to be the champion/hero ingredient within a recipe or menu? How will you help that happen?
A: Good food showcases knowledge and understanding of how to really shine a light on the ingredients and produce you use to create it. You should be able to taste every element, and be able to appreciate the skill to create it.
Q: How will you get these recipes into the hands of the average person?
A: I will ensure that the recipes are written up and made available on my website and across social media. We will also provide details on the day as well.
Q: Is there anything else I should know?
A: If anyone wants to check out my recipes, or find out more about living positively with allergies, they can find me at: www.intolerantgourmand.com
Well this is a twist — our demos now have broader and deeper purpose. Not just boosting consumption but identifying pathways to help with specific medial and nutritional issues.
Come and engage on this deeper level by engaging with our three days of produce centric chef demos. Registration is free and you can do so right here.
Last call for stands and sponsorships too. Just let us know here.
Three days of chef demos! See you at The London Produce Show and Conference!
Nic Jooste is one of the most distinguished names in the produce industry and he has written many columns for PRODUCE BUSINESS.
He has also been featured in our shows and events:
Making ProduceMarketing Everything It’s Not: Creative, Innovative, In-your-face, Non-conventional, Digitally Driven, Attitude- And Adventure-oriented… Nic Jooste Of Cool Fresh Guides The Trade On How To Capture Gen Z And, Next, Gen Alpha!
Preparing For Tomorrow’s Consumers: Cool Fresh’s Nic Jooste Returns To New York’s Global Trade Symposium With Ideas Garnered From His Unique ‘Market Match’ Challenge
A Letter From The Netherlands: The Pandemic Year Well Spent
The Disruption Of Established Markets: How Four Strategies Can Help Transcend Today’s Dilemmas Can Retailers Show A Little Love For Produce Marketing? Dutch Marketer Nic Jooste Will Share His Thoughts On Swimming Upstream At The Global Trade Symposium
PRODUCE AND GENERATION Z Can We Make Our Pitch Effective In Eight Seconds Or Less?
At our 2022 London Produce Show and Conference, Nic is doing a double header. We already gave a sneak preview of his presentation here:
Nic Jooste To Speak At London Produce Show:
The Fresh Produce Industry Has A Moral Responsibility To Focus On Sustainability And Can Make A Profit Doing It As Well!
Now he, along with John van Wijk, CEO of RAAD International Group of companies are doing a presentation on how the Netherlands can be a springboard into Europe..
While the Netherlands may be a small country, coming in as the 22nd largest EU country by land mass, it has a lot to offer: it is 7th in overall population, making it the second densest country, behind only Malta. It’s one of the top five most innovative countries in the world, and according to the 2019 Global Competitive Report, it has the most competitive economy in all of Europe.
For companies looking to enter the European market, which is rife with different languages, cultures, and economic systems, the Netherlands can be a good entry point, as the country can help companies navigate all of those complexities.
Jooste spoke to Steven Loeb, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS about the uniqueness of the Netherlands, the best way to approach the European market, and why working with a single importer can work better than finding one in every country.
Dutch Business Development Partners
Q: If a company is looking to sell produce to another country, usually it would find an importer in each country, but obviously Europe is different. Why does it make more sense to work with one master importer, such as one in the Netherlands, rather than finding one in each individual country?
A: There are pros and cons to both approaches. What works in favor of having one ‘master importer’ in The Netherlands really revolves around the geographical location. From The Netherlands, many countries in Europe are within easy reach.
The Dutch road logistics system reaches far and wide within 48 hours, so keeping a central stock in The Netherlands (say Rotterdam) and then servicing outlying countries makes sense. In this way, an overseas producer can remain in control of his/her stock until the last possible moment. And once a pallet moves out of the warehouse, an invoice can be raised directly.
Secondly, different markets have different requirements in terms of sizing and quality. If a producer selects an importer/distributor with a broad portfolio of customers, all sizes and all qualities could be sold from stock in The Netherlands. Economy of scale means lower storage costs and better deals with transport companies.
Q: I would think that in most cases, shippers don’t prefer to sell to importers at all. They would rather sell directly to ICA in Sweden, Migros in Switzerland, etc. Why is that not a smart strategy for those looking to sell in Europe?
A: Again, different aspects play a role. Most importantly, a grower in, let us say, South Africa often has to deal with rejects by a retailer. Imagine a full container of grapes being rejected in Switzerland, with the owner (the producer) sitting in Peru. How does one go about solving this?
In my experience, having a quality check done just before a product is transported to the retailer makes sense — and saves money. Any ‘problem pallets’ can be identified and removed from the order. The customer is happy, because the product that is received is up to specification. And the grower can still get the best price for his ‘problem’ product by selling it into a different market. And then we have not even spoken about the double logistics costs involved in transporting a rejected container to a different destination.
Q: Is choosing a Dutch sales agent the same as shipping only to the Netherlands, or will a Dutch importer handle shipments into other countries, like the UK or Scandinavia, etc.?
A: The latter. Dutch importers are very adept at deep and wide distribution on behalf of their loyal growers. There is literally no end to the extent to which Dutch fresh produce importers are able to do distribution.
Q: Fruit grows naturally in different sizes and grades, so does Sweden buy different sizes and grades than, say, Switzerland? And does working with one importer help a shipper who can grow or buy the whole product range, and rely on a Dutch importer to distribute, maximize returns?
A: Yes, different markets definitely have different requirements! As stated before, if a grower chooses wisely, he should have an importer that handles the ‘empty tree principle’, i.e., one that can sell all sizes into different markets.
Q: Events, such as the war in Ukraine, can disrupt distribution patterns. How can a Dutch importer help when a market like Russia suddenly disappears, for example?
A: Dutch fresh produce importers have a network in excess of 60 countries. In my mind, there is no single nation with better marketing options than the Dutch. We have seen this in many crisis situations during the past 30 years — the Dutch always find a way to keep on moving fresh produce!
Q: There are 27 countries in the EU right now. What does the Netherlands offer companies trying to enter the European market that the other countries don't?
A: As the saying goes: location, location, location. Working through the port of Rotterdam just makes a lot of sense! In addition to this, the Dutch have been international traders for many centuries. They speak all the languages that are required to do very broad marketing and distribution into different geographical locations. The customs, logistics, financial and information services in the Netherlands are built closely around international trade, specifically fresh produce.
Q: Barriers to entry include all of the different languages, cultures and economic systems in the various EU countries. How do the Dutch produce traders make it easier for companies to navigate all of those differences?
A: The Netherlands is a very small country. That being said, after WW2 the government decided that agriculture would be the future focus. Since then, the country has become the second largest exporter of agricultural products, second only to the USA. Everything oozes trade, with fresh produce being a real core business for the Dutch.
Q: What effect has Brexit had on the Netherlands? Has the country now become a better option now that companies can no longer use the UK to springboard into Europe?
A: Nothing much has happened. Certainly, a very small number of countries has felt the pinch in terms of increased regulations for exporting to the UK. The smooth and efficient systems of The Netherlands has certainly made it easier for companies to springboard into Europe. The increase in the number of English companies that have set up offices in The Netherlands is quite astounding.
Q: When it comes to the produce market, what are some of the unique challenges that they face when entering the European ecosystem?
A: I believe understanding the complex nature of the European market is a major challenge. It is a huge single market with many small ecosystems. Many growers think that moving fruit into and around the European Union can be done on the basis of fixed prices and fast reconciliations. Yes, sometimes this is the case, but mostly it requires skills that have been developed over a long period of time to be excellent at fruit marketing in Europe. The Dutch are excellent at this!
Q: What specific benefits does the Netherlands offer to produce importers and retailers?
A: Geographical location, access to many markets, languages, excellent customs and logistics systems, great information technology, and monetary flexibility, i.e., trading in different currencies.
Memories remain … and when this incipient Pundit was a young industry member we attended the very first International Trade Symposium done by the old PMA and among the speakers was a Dutch trader, name lost to memory.
I remember thinking he was brilliant. For he gave a lengthy presentation detailing the complexities of selling in Europe. He explained the sizes and grades wanted in Sweden as opposed to Austria and Spain and Ireland. Having exhausted his audience with detail, he turned us and summarized the learnings of his presentation.
I paraphrase but, basically, “The European Market is exceedingly complex and you Americans will never be able to master the complexities, therefore, you should ship everything to us in the Netherlands so it can be properly, and profitably, distributed!”
Who knows, maybe he was right!
Join us at The London Produce Show and Conference and gain insight on the role of the Dutch industry as a distribution mechanism for bringing the produce of the world throughout the European continent. You can register, at no charge, right here.
There are still a few, last minute opportunities for booths and sponsorships. If you would like to engage let us know here.
Look forward to seeing you at The London Produce Show and Conference!
At this year's edition of The London Produce Show and Conference, we will be honored to welcome Kees Rijnhout, the CEO of Jaguar, a global fresh group that manages the global sourcing and sales of fresh produce.
Kees Rijnhout has been very actively involved as an entrepreneur in the food industry since 1980. He is the owner of Jaguar The Fresh Company, and is also a supporting investor in various trading and production companies. As a supporting investor, he contributes intensively to the (re)development of companies, and focuses on creating synergy benefits in different areas.
In 2006, Kees Rijnhout acquired a small Dutch family concern specialized in fresh produce trading. Since then he has built Jaguar The Fresh Company into a global fresh produce specialist with offices on four continents. In addition, he has developed Jaguar New Energies, a South African specialist in providing solar energy solutions to fruit growers. At the London Produce Show, Kees will provide insights into how his teams have managed to stay at the forefront of developments commercially, and with a focus on sustainability.
We asked Steven Loeb, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine to talk to Kees about the technology the company uses in fruit sourcing, how the pandemic affected its sustainability strategy, and how he was able to take his small family concern and take it global.
Jaguar The Fresh Company
Q: What kind of technology do you deploy in your fruit sourcing? How do you ensure you're getting the healthiest and most sustainable products?
A: We call it FOTG: Feet on the ground! Jaguar has a solid team of fresh specialists who operate in all the countries from where we source fruit. Our technical teams ensure that every shipment is checked and double checked. Whilst we would love to say that our quality successes are based on technology, nothing is less true. The skills of our people make all the difference!
Q: Talk about how Covid-19 affected sustainability. Did it put more pressure on companies like yours to pursue environmental sustainability and ethical trading?
A: It sounds a bit sanctimonious, but when Covid hit we just kept on doing what we have always been doing: sourcing and supplying great quality from professional grower-partners, using a least-cost logistics system. We focused even more on the decades-long reliability of the Jaguar brand. But in terms of sustainability we just ‘did our thing’ as always. This includes projects around social sustainability, supporting growers with solar energy solutions, and participating in projects around soil health and water security.
Q: What was the new strategy that Jaguar implemented due to the pandemic? How does it differ from what you were doing before?
A: For one, Covid caused us to rethink workplace productivity. As many other companies learnt, we also came to understand that good people will rise to the challenge. Throughout the pandemic we never had more than 30% of our staff present at the office. The rest worked from home, and we did not see any drop in productivity. We are blessed with a really great and loyal workforce, so we did not have to change course – we simply had to allow our people to fly.
Q: How does Jaguar New Energies fit into your overall sustainability initiative?
A: We believe that South African growers will be faced with more and more challenges regarding electricity. Imagine having a full crop ready to be packed and the electricity ceases? Most growers have back-up generators, but these mostly run on ‘dirty’ diesel. With JNE our purpose is threefold: providing growers with a sustainable solution to their energy issues; ensuring that no fruit goes lost due to the non-availability of electricity; and finally, making a contribution to the environment by having lower emissions.
Q: I'm interested in your plan to build out your social sustainability. How will you make sure that the growers, local authorities, supply chain partners and non-profit organisations you work with all benefit?
A: The first thing we have done in 2022 was to set up a strategic action plan. With the imminent EU directive on governance and compliance it is clear that every company needs to have a firm grip on its progress in terms of sustainability. This action plan forms the backbone for the future, and we will be working on the basis of a list of priorities to engage with specific stakeholders as we move deeper into our action plan. In South Africa we call it ‘consultative dialogue’ – it is a slow process but very productive!
Q: How did you take a small Dutch family concern and grow it into a global concern? Why can’t others achieve the same and what would you say to an ambitious young person about how to build a business nowadays?
A: At the core of our business has always been the focus on building a ‘family’. Our people in overseas countries are not micro-managed, but are given freedom to create and room to move. Of course, other companies may disagree and will argue that strong discipline and management is needed in order to ‘control’ people and protect your investment. I tend to disagree. My advice to young people? Identify your dream, surround yourself with other young people who dare to challenge you, and then work with passion!
Q: What would you like to emphasize in your talk at the upcoming London show? What is the key takeaway?
A: Simply that the world of fresh produce is still an amazing one to work in. My personal focus for the coming year is to bring new young talents on board and give them wings. And to retain my extremely loyal staff and support them in transferring their skills. With this I want to increase the position of ‘plant power’ in the world. As Jim Prevor often says: we are on the side of the angels!
Somewhere I have an old photo. The Prevor family business was on the old Washington Street Market in Manhattan and it wasn’t much more than a few people and some phones. The photo shows a small sign identifying the family business but overshadowed by a larger sign identifying a company, General Produce, that owned the building. My father wasn’t a particularly sentimental guy, but he liked this photo for, in time, we bought General Produce and, as my father taught me, it was a reminder that, with smarts and dedication, the minnow can sometimes swallow the whale.
Come and hear this inspiring story of how great things can happen with the right effort, attitude and ability. Maybe, if you listen hard enough, great things can happen to you!
You can gain free admission to The London Produce show and conference by registering right here.
And to grab one of the few remaining booths or do a sponsorship, let us know here.
Grab some inspiration at The London Produce Show and Conference!
There’s a huge amount of food waste, both globally and in the UK. Over a third of all food produced globally goes to waste, while the UK throws away around 9.5 million tons of food waste in a single year. In all, billions of pounds of food are wasted each year.
Picadelo is a company that’s looking to change all that: they are the maker of a smart salad bar that combines hardware and software innovations, including disposable containers, as well as sensors that can record when employees add items, generate alerts when food is going to expire, or even if a customer has left the cover open. The idea is to reduce food waste and spoilage, and to increase revenue for retailers.
At our London Produce Show, we’ll be hearing from David von Laskowski, President and Chief Executive of the Nordic healthy food and convenience company Greenfood Group, as well as CEO Picadeli.
Von Laskowski, an experienced international executive, has previously worked as Chief Executive of numerous international retail players including Axcent of Scandinavia, Visma Retail and Candyking Group as well as holding the position of board member and CFO for other private and public companies.
Furthermore, he has been a researcher at Stanford University and Columbia University and holds a PhD from Stockholm School of Economics.
We asked Steven Loeb, Contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to find out more. Von Laskowski spoke to us about the advancements in technology for the food space, what the company hopes to achieve by entering the US market, and what he wants to get across at the London Trade Show.
David von Laskowski
President & CEO
Picadeli & Greenfood Group
Q: Salad bars and food preparation are not what someone would usually think of when it comes to technology. What kind of opportunity did you see that wasn't being met by others in the space?
A: With Picadeli, we saw an opportunity to provide affordable, high-quality prepared foods to customers more efficiently than they can with standard salad bars. By utilising technology, we created a easy-to-manage and automated salad bar that requires less labour than traditional grocery stores salad bars, which translates into higher sales and improved profitability. The high level of digitalisation also generates groundbreaking consumer insights and opportunities for automation.
But we also saw an opportunity to create a unique food ecosystem, a retail concept that includes the hardware, the technology, the brand and the marketing.
Q: Tell me about some of your innovations on the hardware side, such as your disposable containers. How does this help improve health and food safety?
A: We're fully committed to doing everything we can to create the world's most easy-to-manage and safe food concept. On the hardware side, that means providing a complete concept solution from digital labels and planograms, to smart hand units for scanning of containers. Each container with products has a QR code which makes it traceable through the intelligent food safety system. It also means that the system can monitor shelf life and trigger alarms if product date expires or temperature deviations.
The containers can also be stored in the salad bars integrated storage fridges for quick and easy refilling. The whole concept is optimised to ensure maximum food safety and that the customers and consumers get a fresh and tasty food experience, every single time.
Q: I'm very interested in the software and connected components of your salad bars, including your use of sensors to record when employees add items and to generate alerts when food is going to expire, among other things. What kind of reduction in food waste have your customers seen?
A: We use a combination of innovative hardware and software to make every part of managing a salad bar as easy and efficient as possible, from ensuring food safety to plan assortment and ensure the correct quantity is ordered every time. The insights and data that our salad bar gathers through software allow for AI automation, and last year we developed our own AI-powered ordering system in partnership with Amazon. It's a vast digital leap for us. It calculates order recommendations based on, among other things, planograms, current inventory levels and sales history, as well as forward-looking external factors such as weather forecasts and holidays.
In simple terms, through algorithms, we help those who run the salad bar to order the right products in the right quantities. More precise orders are extremely important for reducing food waste.
We are currently piloting the new system; we're expecting major savings in time and a huge reduction in wasted food.
Q: By reducing food waste and spoilage, are you able to increase revenue for your clients? What other returns on investment do they see?
A: Across the US and Europe, retailers are dealing with labour shortages that are spurring them to implement automated solutions. Our concept requires a lot less labour than traditional grocery stores' salad bars.
Retailers are also navigating stricter safety restrictions and food safety aspects of COVID-19. Food safety is an integral part to Picadeli's salad bar design. The salad bar features shielding hoods, automatic hand sanitiser and bowl dispensers. It also uses an innovative mounting system for utensils ensures that the grip is never in contact with food, and that products are not mixed. We are absolutely convinced that we have created the world's safest salad bar.
Q: You're now rolling your services out to the US for the first time. How have you had to adjust for this new market?
A: Americans have a consumption pattern that fits our concept; they often eat meals outside the home while there is a great interest in wholesome food options. That being said, there is a lack of convenient, fresh, and tasty foods available at an affordable price. That has created a unique opportunity for us on the US market. So we haven't had to refine our market-fit or make changes to the concept or the technology.
Q: What do you want to emphasise in your talk at the upcoming London show? What is the key takeaway?
A: In 2021, The World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that 71 percent of all global deaths can be attributed to lifestyle illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The shift towards plant-based diets, more fruit and vegetables is absolutely necessary for our future health and our climate. Anyone who's able to contribute to change should do so. Our contribution, as part of the fruit and vegetable sector, is to continue to work for the democratisation of healthy food and to prove to consumers that fast food can be nutritious, fresh and tasty.
Making food that is good for the world and good for the individual, easily accessible to all is a noble undertaking. David deserves high praise for finding a way to make this happen.
Yet, in America at least, there is high correlation between high incomes, high educational levels and high produce consumption.
Efforts to, for example, put salad bars in schools have gotten strong industry support, in part because purchase orders start coming in for items sold on salad bars.
But the evidence that children who grow up in schools that have salad bars consume more produce as adults is basically non-existent.
Now, however there is a new high-tech approach and we can certainly expect to see it succeed in places where the old salad bars failed.
Come to The London Produce Show and Conference and learn how this new mechanism may just be a tool that permanently alters the path of produce consumption.
Come and be a part of the discussion at The London Produce Show and Conference. Registration is free and you can sign up right here.
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See you at ExCeL for The London Produce Show and Conference!
Automation is touching every industry; you can’t survive in the 21st century economy without the data and the insights that come from technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. The food automation market, for example, is expected to reach $29.4 billion by 2027.
Within the food space is produce and agriculture, and these are sub-spaces that haven’t seen quite as much advancement and adoption. That’s changing now thanks to companies like Fresh4cast, a company that uses AI forecasting to help growers and distributors improve productivity, increase margins and reduce waste. It’s a solution that includes data sets build from historical, as well as trade statistics and weather, and a virtual assistant designed to automate tasks.
At the London Produce Show and Conference, we will be welcoming Fresh4cast’s COO Michele Dall'Olio.
Michele has based his career on the synergy between innovation and fresh produce. Starting with a degree in Agribusiness and a master in Management and Marketing, he explored the complexity of fresh produce data working as Head of Research for a leading Italian consultancy. He then moved to London and started a new journey with Fresh4cast where he is now the COO.
Michele spoke to us about how greater insights can help growers and distributorsDL benefit from increased insights, how that can lead to less food waste, and what he’ll be talking about at the London Produce Show.
Q: Let’s kick this off by giving a little bit of an overview of yourself and about the Fresh4cast and what you do.
A: I'm from Italy, I moved to London five years ago. I have always been working and studying in the fresh produce sector, from high school until now. In my career back in Italy, I was working with a lot of data, I was head of analysis in a lead consultancy there and I basically developed into a more data-oriented person with Fresh4casts. When I moved to London five years ago, I joined as Head of Customer development and now I’m COO, so I'm specifically looking at all the operations, the planning internally, and I’m basically the interface between the customer and our production team.
Q: You said you've been in the produce space for a number of years and I'm really fascinated by the idea of applying technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to sectors where that kind of technology really hasn't been applied before. I used to work for a motor company, for example, and that was a space that had been legacy space and the technology was very slow to develop because of the older people that were set in their ways. Do you feel like that was the same thing in the produce space? Was there a lack of innovation for a long time? And is that changing now?
A: We are definitely at a tipping point because, if you think about agriculture in general, and fresh produce is one of the sub sectors of agriculture, it is always lagging a bit behind compared to other sectors, for a variety of reasons. Service-based sectors are always more advanced, when we look at software, for instance. So, we definitely are at a tipping point, because, yes, as a sector, it’s a bit behind, but the benefit is that someone else already explored those paths. If you're lagging a bit behind, you know what works and what doesn't; it's an important factor, especially in AI, because there's a lot of trial and error, and a lot of errors. There are a lot of very good examples where fresh produce can take inspiration from. So, the data is there, it's building up and it's just waiting for a machine learning application or an algorithmic forecaster to untap its potential.
Q: What do you think are some of the reasons why the space was lagging behind before?
A: Well, there are a lot of reasons; it's a very difficult topic. If you think about innovation in general, not just technological innovation, it’s driven by key factors such as availability of talent, and being able to attract those talents in the sector. Compared to other sectors, of course, agriculture is a lower margin sector, so innovation is there but it’s not always the first priority. And so, people and resources are the main thing that I see at the moment that is actually changing. Until 10 years ago, you didn't see any fresh produce business having a data scientist in house or a team of people that was analyzing data, or actually hiring companies, such as Fresh4cast, for building a data set, building machine learning forecasters, and so on. Nowadays, there are a lot of requests for this, so the mentality of the top management is changing. That should drive this tipping point off of catching up with other sectors.
Q: It's funny what you said about being a little bit behind meaning that you get to actually see what works and what doesn't. I never thought of it that way before. Everybody else does this trial and error and then you come along and go, ‘Okay, well, now we know what works, and we can just apply it.’
A: When we think about the future and present, and we think, ‘now is the present for everyone,' — but it’s not actually true because, for some people, they're already in the future. So, we can basically copy or take a lot of inspiration from them.
Q: Talk about the ways that you apply AI and machine learning to the produce sector, and the ways that you use that data.
A: Fresh4cast has the three step approach. First of all, we have the customer as a data asset. As you know, machine learning feeds from data and learns from data, so that's the very first milestone. Building a data set is easier said than done, because it's very laborious, and it requires different kinds of skills in the company, but we have different tools over there. So, whenever we have a data set that we can work with, the second bit is that we display it back to the customer using business intelligence tools that we’ve built. So, there is very specific data, for instance data analytics, that helps to understand the seasonality in the fresh produce business, and so on. It’s about understanding what happened in the past in order to understand what is going to happen in the future. And the third point is using algorithmic forecasting, machine learning forecasting, very different tools, in order to extract even more value from that data asset, letting the machine find correlations and try to build models that will predict what's going to happen in the future, even specific inputs.
Q: So, you get the data and you have to make these forecasts based on that data. And then what do the growers and distributors do with that? How do they put it to use? What are some use cases for them?
A: Well, it depends on the supply chain. So, in order to answer your question, I need to talk about the supply chain approach of Fresh4cast. We work with the whole supply chain; we don't work only with one aspect. So, we both work with growers, with distributors, with data from retailers, for instance, and so on. And the important bit is that, for each point of the supply chain, the application changes. I'll give you two key examples: one is at production where, if a grower is going to plant this amount of strawberries, for instance, we give them the weather forecast and other inputs, so they know when to plant them and how much is going to harvest. So, in a nutshell, how many strawberries will be ready next week or in four weeks time and at what quality. On the other side, on the sales side, say there is a distributor that's supplying, for instance, a big retailer; the distributor needs to foresee and start planning for how much the retailer is going to ask in the next few weeks. So, we are talking about a forecast that tries to predict how much volume will be needed? If there is a big promo in Tesco, for instance, what is going to be the seasonality in the future? The cannibalization between the category and so on.
This is usually something that a human could do, but not at scale. There are a lot of very small tasks that a human could do, but it will take him so long that the data is already old, so it wouldn't be effective to use that forecast because we already have the actuals. A machine learning application, especially in fresh produce, is something that is automating a lot of very small tasks in a clever way. It’s like a proficient assistant: it gives you an output, and the human, at the end of the day, decides what to do with it and makes decisions using this information.
Q: You're telling growers when and how much to grow, and you're telling distributors and retailers how much they're going to sell, is that right? So, everybody in the supply chain is getting this data to know how much to expect and how much they should expect to sell?
A: Exactly. If you want to be demand driven, you need to have a forecast in all of the key steps of your supply chain that feeds into the other. So, for instance, if you have a product that you will have next week, how much sales will you have next week? These two pieces of information together creates synergy and allows you to plan better, for instance, your warehouse activities, like how many man hours you need to pack the product.
Q: Where do you pull your data from? Like you said, you're using an existing database. Is any of your data proprietary?
A: We are a software as a service, first of all, so their data is confined inside the customer’s walls. It doesn't go anywhere and we only use the data for the customer. So, we don't do data aggregation with other customers or build models across customers. We do every application in isolation because we also work with fierce competitors. So, that's the way to go. We provide some data such as weather and international trade, but it's all publicly available data, we don't have any proprietary data, we just have proprietary models that interpret the data.
Q: It's interesting that you don't aggregate that data. Wouldn’t that be a more helpful way to get a broader view of the market?
A: We have a few cases where a few companies put together their data, but we need to have written consent. By default, we always work only with the data from the specific customer. And the reason why is that aggregation is useful for generic market trends. So, companies like Nielsen, they aggregate data across a lot of companies, so they have market trends. On our end, we tend to do the opposite: we specialize and fine tune the forecasting model specifically on that customer's operations and that customer data. Because even if one company says the same thing as another one, it doesn't mean that their business structure and supply chain are similar. They could have a very different structure and, therefore, whenever you change something in the structure, the data reflects the operation. So, it would be a different kind of data.
Q: I would think that what one retailer sells would sell the same at another retailer but it sounds like maybe that's not necessarily the case.
A: We don't work directly with retailers; our customers always specialize only in fresh produce. Some of our customer data comes from the retailer, so we can forecast that, but our customers are the growers and distributors. The retailers, we can have the data about them, but they usually have their own forecasting system internally. Just to clarify.
Q: I know that you also offer a virtual analyst for your customers and I'm very interested in learning more about that. I saw that it can send email reports, alerts, prepare Excel reports, and PowerPoint presentations. What's the technology behind that?
A: Saga is our virtual assistant and you already mentioned a lot of the use cases that we use it for. It’s basically a very proficient assistant that automates boring tasks. That means it's very quick at doing them and it takes out that overhead of admin-based work that all the employees have in their routine job. From sales to production, they always have to work with an Excel file, for instance. With Saga, if a grower sends their estimate to the central planning team, they CC Saga in their email, then Saga is able to see the attachment, incorporate the attachment in our database, display analytics, and come back with an email report, which is very bespoke, depending on the customer. Basically, it’s good at interfacing, especially with email attachment and preparing reports on the fly. So, again, it's all about automation, at the end of the day.
Q: I'm assuming that the whole point of that is to free employees up to do more complicated tasks rather than, like you said, repetitive boring stuff that takes up a lot of time but it doesn't require much skill.
A: Exactly. The second point I mentioned before is the business intelligence bit. If you think about how much time you spend on getting the file out of ERP, for instance, elaborating with Excel, remapping, and so on, you will probably spend 80% on transforming and manipulating the data and 20% of your remaining time on actually analyzing the data and making a decision from what you just discovered. With automation, you get rid of all the preparation, so you get rid of all that 80%, but you have ready made analytics, so you can focus your attention on making better decisions for the business. And maybe you have some extra time to have coffee. That’s a very Italian thing to say, I realize.
Q: Have you been able to actually measure improved productivity for your customers? And do you have any numbers you could share with me?
A: Productivity is quite difficult. I could share with you a couple of examples of what happens, but they would be customer specific, so I would avoid that. I can share it with you, though, the improvement of our specialized business intelligence tools that allows the growers or the planner to improve their own accuracy. So, the key part of improving is measuring at the very beginning; you need to measure, understand, and after that you can improve. We have a case study where growers were producing forecasts for their crops and, using our business intelligence tool, they were measuring the accuracy of their own forecast on a daily and weekly basis. They managed to shave 20% of their total errors. So, just looking at their data and having these tools that give you key KPIs, or key performance indicators, on how good your forecast is, where your errors are, and so on, they could shave, without any other inputs, 20% of their errors out of their forecast activity.
Q: How do you measure the reduction in food waste?
A: The reduction in food waste depends, again, on the level of supply chain we are talking about. I'm focusing a lot on the production side but, if you think about your sales side, if you have too much product, and you didn't know in advance, and you're not able to sell it in your warehouse, you will have what's called an overstock. Usually it is not a big problem in other categories but we are in fresh produce, so the shelf life, how long you can keep the product in the fridge, is very, very short. That's one of the reasons why the founder, Mihai Ciobanu, actually focused on the fresh produce at the very beginning with forecasting, because it’s very, very difficult to forecast. And, on top of that, if you get the forecast wrong, you can lose a lot of money, basically, throwing away a product that should have been sold.
Q: Give me a preview of what you’ll be talking about at the London Produce Show and Conference.
A: The production will be focused on how to leverage your own data assets and extra value from it. Specifically, we will look at how the forecasting activity, and specifically the machine learning tool, is helping both growers and distributors to improve efficiency and reduce waste in their own supply chain. We will have a couple of practical examples of how better forecasting is helping with these two topics.
All over the world there has been a focus on indoor agriculture. Billions and billions of Dollars, Euros, Pounds, Yen and other currencies have poured into these projects. With a focus on local, with a hat tip to the idea of super productive and high yield agriculture and a yearning for a roster of social, economic, marketing and culinary benefits, the industry has boomed.
No less a produce stalwart than Driscoll’s just announced its own engagement with Plenty to grow strawberries on an indoor vertical farm. There are many others.
So far, though, profits, and a reasonable return on investment, have been elusive. The same oil prices that favor local, also can increase heating costs. The willingness of Wall Street to fund these projects has led to a boom. The next step remains uncertain.
CleanGreens Solution SA is taking a fresh approach to agriculture that not only is technologically advanced but that also addresses the simple desire of consumers to purchase healthy produce grown close to home. Bernhard Baumgartner, commercial director at CleanGreens, is working to give consumers just that. After working in businesses that had interests in renewable energy and sustainability, and doing consulting work as well, he returned to the agricultural world with CleanGreens, and this time is on the cutting edge of innovation with aeroponics. We asked Steven Loeb, a contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more.
Q: What is your background and what is it that brought you to CleanGreens Solutions?
A: I grew up on a farm in France, so I always had the proximity with the agricultural world. Nevertheless I studied business and started working in the renewable energy industry and then in consulting before looping back into the sustainability sector with CleanGreens during the COVID crisis. I was already working in a startup/scaleup but in the service industry and wanted to have a closer relationship with a product and, more importantly, with a useful product. At the same time CleanGreens wanted to accelerate commercial development, so it was good timing.
Q: Before you joined CleanGreens, what kind of interest did you have regarding the agriculture sector and the food business?
A: I really wanted to go back to my roots, no pun intended, but with a link with innovation and startups. CleanGreens was a perfect match as it’s a Swiss company with a unique system and an ambition to change the way of producing vegetables worldwide. That international ambition appealed to me and was, for me, the main driver to join the team.
Q: Can you detail how CleanGreens aeroponic system functions?
A: Aeroponic technology is an extension of hydroponic technology. Instead of having the roots bathing in a gutter or a basin, they are hanging in the air and are sprayed with a nutritive cloud. This allows better oxygenation of the roots and healthier plants. The roots then absorb the water and nutrients that they need. The rest falls down due to gravity and goes back into our system. It’s cleaned and recharged with nutrients and resprayed until it’s absorbed. This closed loop system allows us to produce one kilogram of lettuce with just 5 liters of water, which is about 40 times lower than traditional field growing. The products are growing on crop modules, and they travel through the greenhouse. The seeds are planted in a processing area, then the plants grow in a greenhouse bay. Once they are fully grown, they go back to the processing area for harvesting, and then either for cleaning and replanting or for a second cut if it’s aromatic herbs. We have a unique combination of using the aeroponic technology in a greenhouse setting, one that is quite unique in the competitive landscape. We’re able to leverage this superior aeroponic technology and the efficiency of greenhouses in order to drive down the price of the final product.
Q: What did you start growing and is that the same today or are you producing more crops?
A: The original crop targeted by CleanGreens was lettuce and, more particularly, large heads, as our industrial partner, Les Crudettes, is a big processor in France, and its interest was to have as much volume as possible. The economics being harder on the lettuce side, we’re focusing today on aromatic herbs: basil, mint, chives, coriander…but in our R&D plant in Switzerland, we tested over 1,000 varieties to see what works well and what does not.”
Q: CleanGreens is using a mobile aeroponic system, so how does that work?
A: Every greenhouse bay is equipped with a robot with spraying nozzles, this robot is laser guided and drives up and down the bay at regular intervals according to the needs of the plants.
Q: Why not simply build fixed systems?
A: In an aeroponic system, it can happen that nozzles get clogged. It takes time to identify and repair them. The mobility part of the system allows us to reduce the number of spraying nozzles and thus decrease CapEx while also decreasing failure chances and maintenance cost and time on the OpEx side. Plus the robots can be easily extracted from below the crop modules for maintenance and checks.
Q: Why is your aeroponic system superior to vertical farming and traditional hydroponics?
A: That’s my favorite question, when looking at a system our clients look at three things: cost, as CaEX and OpEx, yield, which multiplied by selling cost gives you turnover, and quality, as aesthetics, nutritional value and taste. They quickly eliminate vertical farming as the costs are through the roof. Then the comparison with hydroponics gets interesting. Our yields are generally 30% to 50% higher as our roots get more oxygen and our plants can grow quicker and bigger. We reach yields of 950 tons per hectare for lettuce and around 400 tons per hectare for most herbs. The aeroponic system also allows us to keep the crunchiness of the leaves, as they never touch water, and decreases the phyto-sanitary risk. In our system the risk of contamination is very low as the water isn’t exposed to sunlight and, even then, the risk of cross contamination is even lower as the roots are not interconnected and the water is purified at every loop. On the quality aspects, whenever we invite industry experts or when we have chefs or blind tastings organized, our products are systematically rated higher than the average.
Q: Where was CleanGreans’ aeroponic system first installed and how has the company’s operations expanded since?
A: The first system installed was in Switzerland in the town of Molondin. That’s where we perfected the system and made our first crop tests. Then we installed our first full length production lines in France with our industrial partner Les Crudettes before continuing with more lines in Switzerland with Jeremy Blondin from the Domaine des Mattines who is a visionary in the horticulture world in Switzerland. That gave us a good foundation to test the system and get customer feedback on the quality but also allowed us to validate our yields.
The next steps are even more interesting, through a partnership we’re installing a 6,000 square meter system in Kuwait, and we’ll continue to develop in that area, and we’re also installing a 7,000 square meter system still with our industrial partner in France.
Q: What is CleanGreens doing about bringing its aeroponic system to the United Kingdom?
A: The U.K, is an interesting market for indoor farming for several reasons: The main one is the isolation and the high imports. In 2020, the U.K. produced 107,000 tons of lettuce and the country imported 243,000 tons and exported 6,000 tons. It means an import to consumption ratio of 71%. That’s a lot of trucks coming from different European countries to transport a product that is voluminous, light, fragile and supposed to be fresh. From an environmental point of view, it doesn’t make sense especially knowing that they are mostly produced in the south of Spain where water is not the most abundant resource. On top of that, you have the COVID crisis that puts a strain on the movements of goods and people, and many U.K. vegetable producers had to leave the products rot in the field in 2020. And again on top of that, you have consumers who want to eat local, clean products at a reasonable price. The equation only adds up if you are able to mass produce locally all year long, and our system is doing exactly that.
Q: What advantages does CleanGreens aeroponic system offer to the U.K. market?
A: The food independence factor will grow increasingly important especially in the light of recent events. Our system is also solving the CO2 aspect while bringing quality products to the consumers at market price.
Q: What consumer needs and preference does your company address that might not be as readily addressed otherwise?
A: Mainly the freshness and quality of the products. It’s already starting to be addressed by other actors in the market with different vertical farming companies, but they are limited to growing a certain number of niche products sold to a certain number of niche customers who can afford it. Our system is allowing us to not only focus on niche products but also to make things available to the masses.
Q: How do you communicate the advantages of CleanGreens to the U.K. agricultural sector and, ultimately, to the consumer?
A: We’re unlike many other companies in the sector. We often hear of competitors who have a higher marketing than R&D budget. Which is complete nonsense. We’re a Swiss company, and we have a majority of engineers, so that should tell you something about how keen we were on marketing in the early years. We really wanted to make the system right in order not to sell a promise that we couldn’t deliver. We’re now building up our marketing and sales teams to have a better presence, both digitally and in person at events like the London Produce Show, and through Swiss governmental bodies who support us in our internationalization diplomatic channels. So expect to see and hear a lot more from us in the future.
Q: How much more will consumers pay for produce products grown without pesticides and other agricultural chemicals?
A: There is no definitive consensus on this topic. Research by Deloitte in Switzerland showed that 43% of consumers are willing to pay over 30% more for sustainable products, but, on the other hand, it’s hard to convince a retailer to pay more than a 20% premium. So I think we would have to settle on this for now. The good news is that through innovation, industrialization and mass production, we’re able to decrease the costs of our system so we’ll soon be able to produce at the same cost as imported products. This is for lettuce, for herbs, we’re already able to produce in the U.K. at a cheaper cost than imported products.
Q: Do you think consumers will be willing to pay more for such produce products in the future?
A: In the short term, yes, in the future they won’t have to.
Q: Will the CleanGreens aeroponic system be able to grow more varieties of produce in the future?
A: That is clearly an important aspect of things for us and our future expansion. Today, we’re very good on leafy greens but that only represents a small part of the consumption of the clients and in a large scope a small part of the calorie intake of the general population. The leafy green part is just the first step for us, if we take a reducing world hunger approach, we will have to do much more. Next steps is the production of berries, which for us will entail a complete redesign of the system, but that’s on our R&D roadmap.
Q: Can you scale CleanGreens’ aeroponic system to bring costs and, as a consequence, end prices down further in the future?
A: Indeed, the system is organized around a process area where the seeding, transplanting and harvesting occurs. Next to that, the number of greenhouse bays, thus the number of production lines used for the growing of produce, is really scalable. Of course, the higher the number of production lines, the more the costs are optimized and the lower the final price for the consumer. Cumulating innovations, industrialization and larger production, we managed to decrease our CapEx by double digit figures in the last few years. We’ll keep that trend in the foreseeable future in order to be able to enter new markets where the economics aren’t certain yet.
Q: What do you feel is the best case for the CleanGreens aeroponic system now and in the future as the market and your business evolve?
A: The indoor growing market has evolved a lot in the past few years. A few actors managed to raise the attention of some large funds and attracted a lot of capital to finance their growth, especially in the U.S.A.. Now the sector is consolidating and investors look at projects that can have a return on investment in less than six years. That’s a chance for a company like CleanGreens, as we had this focus in the entire development of the system. In operational terms, it will mean continuing development in the Middle East, entering new markets in Europe, mostly in the Northern part, and exploring the North America market through strategic partnerships. The best case scenario is to be able to have CleanGreens teams in these three regions so that we can address these markets locally as they can have different constraints and drivers.
The whole indoor agriculture movement is clearly the hottest thing in produce right now. With strawberries the newest focus for growth in these facilities.
Everyone in the business is looking at these systems. Growing with salt water, in shipping containers, aeroponic, Hydroponic, on top of Supermarkets and Vertical operations.
Come to The London Produce show and Conference and let us explore this field and the CleanGreens organization. Geta sneak peak at what just may be the produce industry of tomorrow! You can register, for free, right here.
Still a few last minute opportunities to sponsor or exhibit available, Ask for info right here.
Join us at excel in London as we help define the future of the fresh produce industry!
The London Produce Show is only a few days away now and we’re especially excited to be joined by chef Peter Sidwell, who will be giving a live demonstration.
Peter is an expert within the food industry specializng in strategy, branding, concept development, new product development, food based content creating for brands and clients. He also works as a public speaker on food and business. He’s also a TV chef, presenter, cookery writer and owner of an award winning food development agency with a successful cookery school, development kitchen and media studio in the Lake District.
He is also a brand ambassador for Symphony Kitchens, Kitchen Craft and California Prunes.
Peter has been working as a consulting development chef for several national and international food companies, creating products, concepts and offers. He recently completed a long term contract with the award winning Westmorland Group, an innovative motorway service station group in the UK.
We asked Steven Loeb, Contribution Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine to find out more. Peter spoke to us about how the attitudes around food are changing, what he’s most looking forward to at the London Produce Show, and how we can make food healthy without sacrificing any of the flavor.
Q: We’re so happy to have you at the London Produce Show and Conference. It sounds like it's going to be an exciting time and it sounds like you're going to be doing a pretty impressive presentation. You're going to be cooking on stage, is that right?
A: This will be my first time cooking on stage for a couple of years, so it's really going to be really nice to get back to doing what I love doing, which is just cooking and talking. I mean, since lockdown, I've been doing digital presentations in my studio kitchen. I've done loads of that, but it'd be nice just to get out and do it again. I love to cook, I love to talk about what I'm cooking at the same time. It's the perfect job for me.
Q: I can imagine doing that digitally over Zoom, it can't really be the same experience as doing it live.
A: No, it's not the same but, in some respects, it's allowed me to take control of my career a little bit. I've done quite a bit of TV and things like that, and it’s like if you don't live in Hollywood, it's quite hard to be an actor and in the UK, if you don't live in London, it's quite hard and challenging to maintain your TV cooking career. So, when lock down hit I invested in broadcast equipment and now we broadcast our own live cookery show every Saturday morning on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram. It just means that I can do what I want to do, I can cook what I want to cook. So, I'm cooking ostrich this Saturday morning and why not? Because I can! Because we have ostrich farms here in the UK now and it's super lean, it's super good for you. And then I'm making a very low sugar flapjack as well. So, those are the two recipes that I'm making on Saturday morning.
Q: It sounds almost like the pandemic democratized the space a little bit. Is that how you’d put it?
A: If you didn't pivot and make some significant changes, I always think everyone was moving where we are now, we just did it in two years, or six months really in lockdown; we made that shift in six months instead of six years. Everything was accelerated towards digital. The older generations are buying online, more online banking, online shopping, entertainment, and so on and so forth. Everybody accelerated, because we had to, and if you didn't innovate and embrace and change, you ended up becoming an Amazon driver. I mean, that's the growth area; I've got so many chef friends of mine who are now Amazon delivery guys because their restaurants are bust, which is no fault of their own, it was just circumstance. But, luckily, I made a big change quite a few years ago and started working with California Prunes and making sure that I found people who needed what I did. And if you go out and find those people that need your skill set, you can build a business around doing that.
Q: And it also got rid of the gatekeepers, in a certain sense. To be on TV, you had to be in London. Now, you could just broadcast from your own house, be on YouTube, be on Facebook.
A: I have two staff that work with me, one edits on the hoof, and then the other one does the post edit and the uploads, and it live broadcasts. And it's just a really interesting time now, having to work with agents and TV commissioners, network commissioners, all that stuff, all gone, don’t need ‘em. I do what I need to do and I work with sponsors who want what I do and they help commercialize what I do. It’s a bit like cable all over again.
Q: You mentioned some of the things that you do, like being on TV, but what do you want people to really to know about you before you take the stage in London?
A: I've done a lot of work in product development. So, new product development is an area that I've always made sure I've kept a foot firmly placed in the commercial world. When you're a chef in restaurants and things like that, that's where you cut your teeth, you train, you learn your trade, and then you start to make strategic decisions on your career. I've always kept a foot in product development; I like supermarkets, I like shops, I find them really interesting places to be from a product development chef's perspective. All I've done is blend NPD with media and just put them all under one roof. So, my ability to produce, innovate, test, develop, create, and then once I've done that bit of the business, I can then communicate that to the world, depending on who I want to talk to in what language. So, I would use LinkedIn to talk about product development and innovation and procurement and fat reduction, sugar reduction, all these interesting things that I can do with a client's product. So, I can take California Prunes and I can work out how to reduce the fat in a cake by 50% by using prunes as a product, which is quite innovative, but the consumer doesn't really care about how I do it. But LinkedIn, B2B, they're fascinated and if you have the ability to communicate and talk the right language to the right audience, then you've got a message. And that's what I do, I bounce from consumer to business to business, and that ability to go from one to the other, and that's why I've been quite successful working with American produce. So, I've worked for the Department of Agriculture via the Embassy in London and done some direct work with them and American products. I've worked with California Prunces for five or six years now, innovating, being gastronomic, and creating amazing dishes as a chef, but then also putting my jacket on and working on product development, weights, measures, testing, pushing, prodding, and pulling, to try and create something that tastes amazing that has a nutritional value to it.
I have to stay on the trends. Like, plant-based food is huge, it's growing and growing and growing. But, for me, it's like, ‘that's great,’ but we need to understand, what are we eating? What are people doing to replicate meat? Or can we innovate with real products, like a prune, a dried plum? How can we make that what its characteristics are and then how can I apply that into a product for some good use? Not just because I'm trying to shove a prune in that recipe. I'm going on stage at the show and we're going to make the most amazing Korean noodle dish but for the barbecue sauce I've removed all the sugar, so there's no added sugar in that at all; I'm using prunes for my sweetness, my fruitiness, and my texture. That's how I'm going to be working on that product as a product development chef, and at the show I'll be able to talk about why I've done it and how I've done it. Why have I gone for a Korean noodle dish? Well, kimchi is massive, gut health is a really significant message, so I'm understanding the consumer market and trying to jump on that with a new innovative solution. And, most importantly, it tastes blooming amazing. It's delicious, it’s really, really good, it's easy to make, and we've removed so much sugar out of that, easily. And we've added a high level of nutritional value with the fiber that's coming from the prunes.
Q: People are definitely more conscious of what they're putting in their bodies these days than they used to be, that's for sure. And they're taking a much more active role in their own health. It sounds like that’s really changed your own approach to food and cooking as a result.
A: As a chef, I used to chuck butter and cream and sugar into everything; that's what chefs did. Now, we have to really think, and when I work with different clients on different projects, those things are out the window, I'm not allowed to use those anymore. I've got to really think and apply my culinary skills and my curiosity as a chef, as to how is that going to work? What's it going to do? How can I balance it? And then you've got to think about how that works in a production environment. The more processes you add to a product, the more expensive it becomes in production in a facility. So, I've got to travel all the way through that product until it gets to the consumer, so that I can be really conscientious and I can go back to the client and say, ‘Look, this is the product, let's reverse engineer this all the way back to the prune that's growing in the orchard in California.’ As a successful development chef, you have to be really aware of that, the whole journey, and understand the what, the why, the how and make it taste amazing. Be on point, be on trend. The consumer needs to want it. Otherwise, what's the point? Can't make them buy it, you got to try and innovate and be quick and agile and that's why we keep everything under one roof. So, we have product development, we have laboratory analytics that we can access, we have media, food photography, recipe development, film, photography, video, and audio. So, we do podcasting for clients, we create audiocasts. So, it's that whole multimedia suite that clients want now. They don't just want a recipe and a photo; we can go live for you on Instagram, on LinkedIn, we can talk to buyers and consumers on LinkedIn. Or we can talk to consumers on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. We can video; I'm doing some work for Florida Grapefruit at the moment, so we're creating some really engaging video recipes for them. But what we're also doing for their blog post is creating audio clips. So, we're doing a short podcast on each recipe. So, all those top tips, those little nuggets of golden information that I sometimes take for granted as a chef, because I just do it, whereas my team will be like, Pete, how did you do that? Why did you do it that way?’ We need to capture that, because that could be the difference between success and failure in a recipe. It's not just come down to ingredients or method, there's often little nuances and tips and tricks and things like that that chefs have, and we've just found lots of platforms to do that and capture it for clients.
Q: Is part of this getting the chefs out there and cutting through the noise. There's a lot of competition in this space and obviously a lot of people are competing for the same eyeballs and the same ears. So, is that part of what you're doing is helping your clients get out there in front of the right audience?
A: 100%, it's all about understanding who your audience is, and that comes down to marketing. Who your audience is or who you want them to be. If you haven't got who you want then how do we get what you want? As a product development chef, I have many hats now and I have to be able to help clients grow their audiences and grow their engagement and things like that. But it all comes down to the product.; you got to work with that product, you've got to understand its characteristics and what it can do. I've traveled around various places in Europe and things like that and I'm always tasting different produce and things like that. The opportunity that I got to go to California and walk through an orchard and actually taste the raw product was really, really interesting and it was a lightbulb moment. You think about it, ‘oh, yeah, it's actually a plum.’ You forget that it's plum. Do you call them dried plums in America? Are they?
Q: We call them prunes.
A: In different parts of the world, they refer to them as different things. But to taste the raw product is really helpful to then understand why it becomes a prune and its nature and its characteristics. As a successful chef, you're as good as the produce you've worked with. So, it's really important to understand your raw produce before you even begin any kind of cooking, in my opinion.
Q: To be honest with you, I don't know how they make prunes. It's never something that I've ever learned, nobody ever taught me that, and it's not something I've ever really thought about. But it's probably important to know that if you're going to eat it.
A: I think so, yeah. It's natural sugar content. It’s sweetness off the tree, then that contributes to how it dries, and then water retention, and then removal of the water and then you end up with that soft, chewy, almost winegum type texture. And that texture I can use in food innovation and that food pairings is a really interesting one that I've done quite a lot of work on. What foods work with other foods. So, when I take the California prune, what flavor profile compliments it or contrasts it? For me, that's just combining it together and then throwing it out there and letting other people create amazing dishes as well. So, we do a lot of flavor combination work. For example, prunes and dark chocolate worked really well, prunes and walnuts work really well, we know those. But then if you were to take mint and prune, they work really well together. And salted anchovy and prune work really well together. You would take, perhaps, a dark craft ale and prune, they work. Fennel and prune work really well together. Then once you can start playing with combinations, then you can start to innovate and create dishes that inspire people to use that product. That's my job.
Q: There must be a lot of trial and error there because I would never assume that prunes and anchovies will work together. But you try it and you see if it works. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.
A: Absolutely. That’s the saltiness of an anchovy and then, once you then dive into the world of saltiness, you then go to miso and you go to feta and things like that. All of a sudden, you're like, ‘we've got all these options I never knew I had.’ It's all about the combination of flavors and that was something when I moved from restaurant cooking to product development cooking, it was all about taste and innovation and things like that. That's where you need to understand your product and its flavor combinations and all the opportunities that you might have. So, you really need to know ingredients to be able to be a good product development chef and these are the things that I want to talk about at the Show while I'm cooking. The Produce Show is such an important place for a certain caliber of chef to go to. A lot of chefs go to restaurant shows and things like that. Whereas, for me, I want to go to produce, I want to see the produce of the world, and how can I play with it?
Q: Are there different varieties of prunes? Does it depend where they're grown? Does that change the taste of the prune?
A: There are certain types of plums that are suitable to become a prune, and it's about the sugar content. There are three or four key areas in the world that grow prunes: obviously, California for me, I've been working with them for a long time and they're just the best quality. They really are. So much work goes into making sure that that product is top quality.
Q: Do you think your culinary expertise can impact the consumption of produce? Do you think that it can be increased?
A: For sure. I'm almost that front-facing person that can inspire you to try new things. And it's very much understanding food trends and where things are going and why we're doing what we're doing and with what. A lot of these things happen in restaurants, and then they filter down into the home, and then from the home they filter down into the supermarkets. I always think the supermarkets look at what we're doing in restaurants and things like that because they know the consumer has gone to the restaurant. For example, in this country, burrata is quite popular now. Five years ago, burrata wasn't really that popular, unless you'd been to Italy and Campania, that particular region, and you knew what you were looking for. Now, because of Instagram, burrata is mental, everyone wants burrata! And it's understanding, How can I jump on that? How can I be part of the conversation?’ And, for me, travel is the best way to learn and experience new things. Obviously, we've not been able to do it for a couple of years but, as a chef, you have to get to a point where you've learned a certain level of culinary ability, and then, thereafter, it's about ingredients. I need to find the best, the most delicious, where can I find it? Like, at the moment, I've got wild garlic growing in the woods around me. Rather than the bull garlic that you'll be familiar with, we have a green leaf here. So, it's like big, massive basil leaves, big elongating ones. They're delicious, but they're wild; you can't commercialize that. And it's finding that amazing product, and I've got it for four weeks in the north of England, I'm going to enjoy that. I'm going to run with it for weeks, and then move on.
It’s just finding amazing, interesting products, and then understanding what the consumer is looking for, what are they wanting? Everyone says that they’re time poor at the moment. How can you take four ingredients that are amazing and create a delicious dish? That's what everyone loves around the world, not just the UK, and we are a global marketplace now, more than we've ever been, because of iPads and everything else, which makes it easy to have a global audience. If I think back, I think my first TV show was 15 years ago, it was a UK program for a UK audience. And then it got sold around the world afterwards, because it was about the UK. Whereas, now, when I go live on a Saturday morning, I have viewers in America, East Coast, West Coast, Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. And it's, like, ‘wow, all by this flick of a switch.’ And what I cook then affects what they'll go and shop for that week. What produce I’m buying affects what those consumers do and what they’re looking for. And then knowledge is power. ‘What can I do outside of that recipe? What can I do with this bulb of fennel? I don't really know, I've done what Pete told me. Now, what do I do?’ And if you understand the role of produce, then you can start thinking about how it would work, or what to do with it, what works with it, what flavors work and things like that. So, when I'm on stage or on camera, I try to talk about its flavor and its characteristics, and what else you could do with it to expand it’s appeal.
Q: It's really interesting to think about people using fruit more in cooking, because honestly, that's not really something that you think about too much. Obviously, it’s used in pies, or in duck l'orange, stuff like that, but you didn't really think about fruit necessarily being a staple of that level of cooking. And so it seems like your goal is to get that down to the consumer level where they will incorporate fruit more into their recipes.
A: For me, as a chef creating recipes, I look at how I can add nutritional value to a recipe so that it's the best bang for its buck you can possibly get. If I can make that easy for you, it's an easy decision for you to make, and then we start to build a trusting relationship. I can then grow on that and I can build and build and build. We all like food that's not good for us, but how do we make it as nutritionally valuable as possible? And what I've learned with California Prunes is fiber is absolutely the beginning of everything, because if you aren't getting sufficient fiber, you won’t absorb the nutrients that you're then eating through the day. So, let's get that bit right first, and then you will reap the benefits of adding this and this and this and all of a sudden, you think you're having junk food, but you're not, you're having something that's loaded with nutritional value, and you didn't know you were eating healthy. That's the way we win.
Q: Because it tastes good, and it's good for you.
A: ‘Tastes good; is always first for me; if it doesn't taste good, it doesn't pass stage one. Then that comes with the theory of flavors. We sit around a table and we think about what's going to work with it. ‘Okay, so if that's going to work, then that could take us there or there or there, because that ingredient opens up the next door.’ So, like a puzzle, you add one product in and then it leads us to, ‘Well, let's go through that door there.’ And then we'll go through that one and we'll see where it takes us. All of a sudden, you've ended up with, I don't know, a Greek dish or an Italian dish or whatever it might be.
Q: And so those recipes for California prunes, they're available for consumers? How do they get those recipes?
A: On the California Prunes websites, I create a lot of the recipes there for them and the Korean noodle dish, and then after that, I'm also making a Florida Grapefruit, California Prune muffin. So, I've reduced the fat by 50% and I've reduced the sugar by 30% by using California Prunes in my baking. I've created what I would call a ‘prune butter,’ so it's half prune half butter, or margarine, whichever you choose. So, straightaway, I've reduced half of the saturated fat but what I've added is a huge nutritional value injection into a muffin. Then we've glazed it with Florida Grapefruit and ice and sugar to make it just delicious. What it isn't is a healthy muffin, what it is an amazing muffin that tastes delicious and we've added nutritional value and taken some of the bad stuff away. We've all had a bran muffin that's supposed to be good for us. Whereas with this, we've worked out the building blocks of how to bake a cake and then we've played around with it through trial and error, we've removed 50% butter. In the development kitchen, I pushed that to like 80% and realized that's too far, so we reigned it back. And then with sugar, I was able to reduce 30% of the sugar and the bake without the molecular structure of the bake being compromised. That's all just about trying and testing. And then once you've got the formula, then you can add all the flavors.
Q: You’re making me want to go and check out some of these recipes and make some of them with these California Prunes.
A: I can send you the recipes, no problem.
Q: Fantastic. Is there anything else that you think I should know about you or the prunes or what you're going to be doing in London?
A: Like I said, I'm really looking forward to just getting back on stage and doing what I do. I can't wait to see all the produce that’s there. I haven’t been to the show before, so it's going to be a real eye opener for me. But it's the most interesting part because it's the beginning of the product is the ingredients. If you haven't got good ingredients, you're never going to get anywhere. You're as good as the produce you buy. I often say to people, ‘good cooking starts with better shopping, so you should start with really good shopping first. You buy the best that you can work with that.’
Around the developed world the produce industry has a dilemma. Per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables is flat or declining. The Produce for Better Health Foundation in the United States has stated it clearly in introducing its State of the Plate research:
“The results are in. As a society, we are chronic underachievers at eating our fruits and veggies and, subsequently, we are short-changing the health and well-being of generations of Americans. In 2020, PBH commissioned an update to our trended fruit and vegetable consumption research. Sadly, the news is not as encouraging as we would hope. America’s fruit and vegetable consumption continues to erode over time.”
At The London Produce Show and Conference we are trying to identify programs that might help the industry address per capita consumption. We have already unveiled two extremely interesting perspectives. First, we pointed to a seminar we are running that focuses on how an individual retailer could look to address this issue and we settled on a Swedish based retailer:
An Important Discussion
ICA Sweden’s Maria Wieloch Speaks Out:
The Imperative Of Increasing Produce Consumption to 500 Grams Per Day Per Capita
Does The Industry Have The Long Term Perspective That Is Needed?
We also recognized that there is a big gap in per capita fruit and vegetable consumption based on income and wealth. In the United States the Brighter Bites program is a science driven program focused on increasing consumption of children from low income families so we asked the CEO of the organization to come to London and explain their efforts:
Rich Dachman To Speak At London Produce Show
From Sysco To Brighter Bites: Getting People To Eat More Produce
A Research Backed Approach And A Personal Journey
The third leg of this tripartite discussion, is to analyze how the UK based Veg Power movement is attempting to move the needle on consumption in the UK.
Veg Power, a not-for-profit alliance, is on a 10-year mission to turn around vegetable consumption in the UK. The mission: to get every kid in the UK eating one more portion of veg each day. Founded by some heavy hitters in the UK food scene, such as celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Veg Power is tackling produce consumption with hip, high-powered marketing.
Veg Power’s board includes Baroness Rosie Boycott; advertising and marketing genius Sir John Hegarty; Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation; Andy Porteous, global marketing expert whose roles included senior vice president of digital for global foods at Unilever; Anne Heughan, public health nutritionist and registered dietitian; and Katie Palmer, program manager for Food Sense Wales.
Veg Power is supported and funded by organizations and individuals all over the UK that provide funding, free media, goods and services, including major food retailers and brands, such as Aldi, ASDA, Coop, Dole, Lidl, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose.
At the London Produce Show and Conference, Veg Power Chief Executive Dan Parker will share the experiences of the organization’s wildly successful campaigns, including the award-winning “Eat Them to Defeat Them.” Parker will also be unveiling detailed insight from retail sales data and consumer surveys to look at the motivations and habits of different segments of the market — from the ethically engaged youth to the dietary diehards who barely touch a vegetable. The insights will be publicly shared for the first time at the London Produce Show and Conference, being held this year at ExCeL on March 21, 22, and 23.
We asked Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more:
Q. For readers not familiar with Veg Power, which was just started in 2018, could you give us a brief explanation of the organization and its goals?
A. The Veg Power program was founded in 2018, by a group of people you might know, including Jamie Oliver and another well-known chef in the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; the Baroness Rosie Boycott; John Hegarty, a great advertising legend; and the Food Foundation —all leading campaigners on food poverty issues.
The Food Foundation had a conference about dire poverty and food issues, and at the conference, there was a competition for designing a poster for vegetables. And that competition led to the conversation that, “Well, this isn’t really enough, is it?” If we’re going to do something serious about improving the nation’s health, which is the children’s health, we need to get set up.
Vegetables need a champion, and a campaign — much like the “got milk” campaign in the U.S. — we needed something that really got behind vegetables. And so, the group came together, and I said I would do it, if they all supported it. We launched Veg Power then, with the purpose that we need to get the country eating more vegetables.
We also looked at the supply side of vegetables with a program called “Peas, Please,” which tried to get more vegetables in meals in restaurants, and in grocery stores. It is very difficult to get more vegetables in places like small-scale convenience stores, so we’re trying to increase the availability of vegetables wherever we can, to make it easier for people to choose them.
Where the other side of our job is to find a way to increase people’s desire to eat vegetables and help them overcome the challenges they may face in their life that stops them from doing so. We do use marketing and advertising — we also just launched a school program yesterday. So, we have the schools program, the community-based programs — we do lots of emergency food banks — and also we do big TV advertising campaigns, all of which are driven by donations, and all which are designed to encourage those particularly who have poor levels of vegetable consumption, which often means low income families, and support them.
Q. So tell us a little bit about the school program.
A. Our flagship campaign is called “Eat Them to Defeat Them.” And it’s a funny, kind of a spoof horror story about vegetables that are going to take over the world, and one way to defeat them is to eat them. That is super silly, but it’s aimed at children ages 5 to 10, and they know it’s a ruse to get them to eat more vegetables, but they laugh, and they have fun.
For that, we get about $5-6 million worth of advertising donated from some of the biggest broadcasters in the country, but also from newspapers and poster sites and online and various other companies. Media companies, led by ITV, give us free media. We have advertising made for us for free by one of the big ad agencies.
It is now in 4,000 primary schools, which is what we call schools for ages 5 to 11, and there’s just a little over a million kids taking part. They all get reward charts, with in-school activities, activities for them and their families at home, with social media, books and coloring charts and all sorts of things going on for them, to encourage them to eat more veg. This is our fourth year of doing this, and it is the biggest year we’ve had. Last year, 60% of families who took part said that their kids ate more veg.
We recently had some econometric analysis done — we have a model that will give all the retail sales data by the grocery stores nationally, and then we have a model that was created for us by a couple of esteemed professors from Oxford and Cambridge. And this model tries to calculate how much change in sales can be directly linked to the work that we’re doing. Their estimation is that we have generated just a little short of an extra billion children’s portions of vegetables over the past few years — vegetables have been sold and consumed as a result of our program. That is great, but that’s still just a drop of the ocean, obviously.
Q. What will you be focusing on at the London Produce Show?
A. As part of the work that we do, we write market insight reports. We get a huge amount of retail data from the businesses that support us, and then we bring in some data scientists (who work very cheaply for us) and we produce these reports. One of the things we’ve done this year for the first time is we’ve segmented the vegetable-consuming audience, and I’m not sure this has ever been done before. We’ve taken all the data sources that are out there, which are traditional survey work, and we’ve tried to simplify the market segments — to find different groups with very different motivations, with very different vegetable-eating habits. It really shines a light on market segments and what we need to do to move those segments along. I’ll be sharing that information publicly for the first time at the London Produce Show.
For example, we estimate about 12.5% of people would be inclined to increase their vegetable consumption based on sustainability. So, these are the kinds of people who might be vegans or support a more plant-based lifestyle; they’ve got a high level of environmental consciousness going on — and they will consider eating more vegetables as driven by that motivation.
We have another group of about 40% of the population, that is just not engaged at all. They have a terrible diet, they know they have a terrible diet, and maybe they care, but they have no intention of doing anything about it. They’re the hardest to reach.
We have a segment that is driven by health, another group that’s doing a great job, and we have the Fitful Fivers, who are nearly there. Sometimes, they’re doing a good job, and they try to eat 5 a Day of fruits and vegetables, but life gets in the way, and they go through bad patches. They’re about 22.5% of the population, moving between good and middle in terms of their achievements of eating fruits and vegetables in their diet.
We’ve done this segmentation work to quantify these different groups and to understand what these people are doing and their motivations. That, then, we turn into a whole bunch of creative ideas. So, if you’ve got people who say, “Life just gets in the way,” how do we fix that? It’s very easy. What the research shows is that telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables because they’re healthy actually only has an impact on a very, very tiny group. The vast majority of people know that already, right?
What we did and what we didn’t see during the pandemic — which basically was the biggest health scare that we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes — we didn’t really see a significant movement toward more healthy diets. We saw the healthy and wealthy became healthier and wealthier, but the vast population didn’t. So, we know the “eat more veg, they’re good for you” bits doesn’t work and never has, and probably never will.
Q. That’s definitely some information to look forward to hearing at the show! You’ll also be discussing how we can grow vegetable consumption even with a modest marketing budget. What’s the secret?
A: We all know that our charitable purpose aligns perfectly with the commercial purpose of people who work in horticulture: We want to get the world to eat more vegetables, so they’re more healthy; they want people to eat more vegetables, so they buy more vegetables. We are perfectly aligned.
If somebody’s saying to us, ’well, we’re going to do a campaign that markets vegetables,’ we want to help them to be more successful at doing that. We are very well connected, not only to celebrities but other supporters, like some past British Olympic teams and some very big names on British TV. We can leverage these stars, and we can leverage lots of chefs — we have a huge army of chefs and social media influencers that we get behind campaigns.
We also have a substantial network of schools and we’re connected to almost every single local government, the Welsh government and Scottish government, thousands of healthy weight groups across the country, foodbanks and community organizations.
We can team up with you to get a marketing campaign out to all these different channels and give you reach you couldn’t otherwise afford to buy. Reach, in media terms, is the most expensive part. You can make an advert for half a million dollars, but you need to spend $10 million on getting to the right people, so we can bring you a lot of reach.
Many companies have very little way of what you might call consumer marketing departments, because it’s not the culture of horticulture. There are some brands that have expanded, but the vast majority really don’t have a marketing bone in their bodies. Whereas we’ve got a sort of a small organization full of marketing and communications people, so we can sit down with them. And if they just want to elaborate themselves, then that’s not for me to support — we’re not the ad agency, right?
Now if you’re encouraging people to eat more pumpkin, that’s something we’ll get behind, but if you want to get them to eat more of your particular brand of pumpkin, that’s not something that we can support. We support the industry with experience, expertise and our networks, and, in some cases, starting to build up a useful infrastructure as well. We can make fairly modest budgets go further.
Q. When you talk about infrastructure, what do you mean?
We have, for example, a software platform for managing 4,000 schools taking part, with a million children, and 8,000 to 9,000 parcels being sent out, or different combinations of items. We have a stock control system, registration systems, and integrations into a fulfillment house. We have a fulfillment partner that has fast printing presses, but with integrated systems. We work with them all the time, and if you need to get resources out to 5,000 different locations, that sort of thing is bread-and-butter.
We have all that experience of doing it and have delivery systems for getting it done. We have a good CRM (customer relationship management) platform and all sorts of things that we can use, because we’ve invested quite a bit and these platforms are the foundation for operating a decent scale.
Q. What do you hope is the message the audience at the London Produce Show will take home with them?
A: Well, we’re always hoping those people support us financially or otherwise. That’s important. But, we are trying to get the sector to be ‘market-led’. The produce sector, as a whole, is very ‘produce-led’, and most of it isn’t, first and foremost, about the customer. That’s a little unfair on some people, but I don’t think it’s unfair on the sector as a whole. We’d like our sectors to look up a bit more and understand. We have important questions to answer as a sector.
The way people buy carrots is closer to how they buy gravel than it is to how they buy a wine. Very few people sit down and actually make a great deal about the quality of the product they’re buying — they just pick up a bag of carrots, and nobody buys wine that way.
We need to increase people’s perceived value of fresh produce — to appreciate produce that’s being produced well, that’s being produced in a sustainable fashion, that’s being produced with a focus on flavor, or whatever it might be.
We need to get people to place a much higher value on their fresh produce. If people place a higher value on it, they hopefully will be prepared to pay a higher price for it. The margins on the sector are generally fairly terrible. We’re not going to get those up until we get people to place a higher sense of value on the products that the produce industry works so hard to deliver. We’re in a moment, a vicious circle, that people are just churning out cheap onions, cheap carrots — it’s kind of a race to the bottom with ever smaller and smaller margins and lower prices. We need to break that cycle if we want to prosper and enjoy all these great products.
The sector is under incredible pressure: increased energy prices; significantly increased labor prices, which some passed down to us leaving the European Union; increased costs of producing things in a more sustainable fashion. There’s huge discounting, to deliver core grocery items at the lowest possible price. The margins are very, very tight. It’s very hard for people to grow fresh produce and make a living out of it, even the big companies. We need to not only get more of it out there, we need to get more of it out there in a way that allows the industry to prosper.
I suppose I would say our purpose is to get the world on vegetables. We bring together very experienced marketing people and huge amounts of support from the mass media. And we have no commercial incentive at all. So we want to share our knowledge and understanding with everybody in the sector, so the sector gets better at promoting its own products.
The most fascinating thing about the Veg Power program is that it is only about vegetables. The front page of its website lays out the mission:
"80% of our kids are not eating enough vegetables. Veg Power is on a mission to inspire kids from early years through primary school and into their teens to veggie-loving habits they will keep for life and in turn share with their children"
This is a significantly more difficult mission than getting children to eat sweet fruit. It also makes it more difficult to get industry support. What money there is in produce is often on the side of the banana giants, the berry industry, apples, etc., but an awful lot of the health impact comes from the vegetable side. So there may be a better chance of getting public policy support for a veg-centric program.
Still, money is an enormous problem. Dan rightfully is proud that they could get £5-6 million worth of advertising donated by broadcasters, newspapers, poster sites and online media. It is impressive. But McDonald’s — one company — spent £151.55 million on advertising in pre-pandemic 2019.
There are also broader issues to be considered. To some degree generic advertising which, by definition, treats all varieties, growing operations, etc., the same — does not encourage investment in varieties that provide superior flavor. It also doesn’t encourage investment in sustainability initiatives or other attributes.
The industry is certainly all behind the idea of getting people to place a higher value on fresh produce, but the evidence this can be done is pretty sparse. It is a supply-and-demand business, and if consumers, for whatever reason, value vegetables more, we will probably grow more vegetables, but it is not clear prices will increase at all.
Some important insight that grew out of the pandemic:
"What we did, and what we didn’t see, during the pandemic — which basically was the biggest health scare that we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes — we didn’t really see a significant movement toward more healthy diets. We saw the healthy and wealthy became healthier and wealthier, but the vast population didn’t. So, we know the “eat more veg, they’re good for you” bits doesn’t work and never has, and probably never will."
So, join us at The London Produce Show and Conference. Listen to Maria Wieloch from ICA Sweden; listen to Rich Dachman from Brighter Bites and listen to Dan Parker from Veg Power. Be part of this robust and important discussion of how the industry can boost produce consumption.
We still have a few last-minute opportunities to exhibit or sponsor. If interested let us know here.
And, of course, you can register to attend the event, March 21, 22 and 23 by signing up here.
Please be a part of this important industry conversation. The potential for growth of the industry is being debated at The London Produce Show and Conference. Please be a part of the debate!
Nic is one of the most distinguished names in the produce industry, and he has written many ‘European Marketing' columns for PRODUCE BUSINESS.
He has also been featured as a speaker in our shows and events:
Making ProduceMarketing Everything It’s Not: Creative, Innovative, In-your-face, Non-conventional, Digitally Driven, Attitude- And Adventure-oriented… Nic Jooste Of Cool Fresh Guides The Trade On How To Capture Gen Z And, Next, Gen Alpha!
Preparing For Tomorrow’s Consumers: Cool Fresh’s Nic Jooste Returns To New York’s Global Trade Symposium With Ideas Garnered From His Unique ‘Market Match’ Challenge
A Letter From The Netherlands: The Pandemic Year Well Spent
The Disruption Of Established Markets: How Four Strategies Can Help Transcend Today’s Dilemmas Can Retailers Show A Little Love For Produce Marketing? Dutch Marketer Nic Jooste Will Share His Thoughts On Swimming Upstream At The Global Trade Symposium
PRODUCE AND GENERATION Z Can We Make Our Pitch Effective In Eight Seconds Or Less?
Dutch Business Development Partners
At our upcoming London Produce Show, Nic will be doing a presentation on 'The 5 steps in developing a sustainability action plan'.
European fresh produce suppliers often see sustainability dominating the discussions with retailers and foodservice companies. These organizations see it as their moral responsibility to be involved in sustainability all the way down the supply chain. They also understand that such an involvement can provide a competitive edge in marketing to the new generations of consumers, who have a true passion for respecting and protecting the world. Nic will look into a 5-step plan for establishing a sustainability strategy in small and mid-size enterprises.
Nic Jooste was born in South Africa and has spent the past 30 years in Europe. He is a sustainability specialist with a penchant for social issues. His experience includes the interaction between sustainability, marketing, communication, brand development and storytelling. Nic has developed and activated 12 global fresh produce brands.
Steven Loeb, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, spoke to Jooste about what sustainability means, how much progress the industry has made, and how the different parts of his 5-step plan work.
Q: “Sustainability” may mean different things to different people. Tell me what it means to you.
A: In Dutch, we have a saying: ‘een argument plat slaan’’. This means literally taking an argument and beating it until it’s flat and uncomplicated. For me ‘sustainability’ has become all about things that I can do within my own span of control. I know that I can cycle to the farm and buy milk in a bottle, instead of driving my car to the supermarket and buying milk in a carton.
Same in business: if I can reach out to one rural farm worker and change one life by making a small contribution, I am doing something. Imagine if all people in the world were able to change just one little bit of their behavior for the good: we could save the world in a week! I use the following definition to define my vision: ‘DOING GOOD FOR TOMORROW, TODAY’ and ‘MAKING WHAT WE HAVE LAST AS LONG AS POSSIBLE’.
Q: We’re coming up to 30 years since the signing of Agenda 21. How far have we come since that time?
A: Let’s be honest: a long way! When I started on my ‘road to sustainability’ in 2003, it was a word very few people knew about. And look at where we are today: in my business network, there is no single company that has not at least made one step in embracing sustainability. Sure, it is never enough, but I am very proud of how far fresh produce has come!
Q: How important is corporate social responsibility currently? Can companies survive without it?
A: Today, people jokingly say that very soon there will only be two types of companies: bankrupt companies and sustainable companies. Certainly in fresh produce, sustainability has become the most talked about topic. Without it, a fresh produce company does not even make it to the first round of negotiations with retailers.
Q: Who are the companies accountable to: is it their own customers, thanks to pressure that comes from social media? Or are there other reasons why CSR has become so important?
A: In the first instance, it was certainly the case that external pressure ‘forced’ companies to get involved in sustainability. In the beginning, it was a question of ‘yikes, another list of demands.’
However, what has changed (albeit under the surface) is that a new generation of consumers (and employees) has become involved. These global citizens (mostly GenZ) do not accept window-dressing and green-washing. They demand action from brand owners and employers.
So, I believe that the demand for sustainability is now coming from citizens who have the most to lose, should the world screw up: the young people who still have their future ahead of them!
Q: How is CSR measured? What are the standards that they are supposed to be following?
A: There is no certifiable, standardized system for measuring sustainability. In my time as CSR director of sustainability, we used the CSR Performance Ladder that was originally developed by Det Norske Veritas, Lloyds and Bureau Veritas. This always gave me a solid grip on our performance. But there is also the ISO 26000 standard that provides good guidelines.
Q: Are companies living up to those standards? Or do many have more to do?
A: Yes there are definitely companies that go a long way to implementing and adhering to these standards! That being said, it is a complex issue that is often very challenging, especially for smaller sized companies. I always advise companies to identify ‘smaller’ issues that they can have a direct control over, instead of trying to implement the full set of sustainability items and requirements.
As I always say to my sons when we discuss assignments that they have to do for their studies: it is better to submit something than to talk about everything but do nothing!
Q: What stands in their way of achieving full sustainability?
A: In fresh produce, definitely time. Our industry is always under pressure, and we do not always comprehend long-term issues. For many years, fresh produce has centered only around commercial issues (buying/selling/trading/solving problems). To become involved in sustainability, one has to free up time from the daily activities and try to comprehend the implications of one’s actions (or non-actions) on the future.
Q: What makes sustainability especially challenging in produce and what unique challenges do produce companies have to deal with?
A: It depends from what perspective we are looking at it. A company that deals with produce from ‘far away’ has to manage a complex supply chain, where one does not control a large portion of what happens. Let’s say an importer in the UK imports grapes from the north of Peru. It is a completely different culture, climate and socio-political environment. Yet, every action that the importer takes has an impact all the way back to the laborers that work on the farms.
Plus, we are dealing with perishable products that require pesticides and herbicides to be used in production and packing. It literally means that an importer must understand all the components in the chain and try to build sustainability measures in every step of the way. I spent most of my working life in our company traveling to far-away produce countries to try to understand and safeguard the effect of our actions on sustainability. But not every small or medium enterprise has the luxury of having a dedicated sustainability manager.
Q: What role do retailers play? If big buyers demand a specific standard, it can create an ecosystem of sustainability. But it can also serve as a ceiling: if growers or shippers go beyond the buyers’ specifications, they might spend money their competitor, who just meets standards, did not. How can we make sure that doesn’t happen?
A: This is a dilemma. I have seen retailers demanding exactly this (an extremely high level of sustainability) from suppliers, yet opting to buy — at the lowest price — from a supplier that barely meets the basic requirements. This is an issue that is still happening every day.
Q: How do you weigh one silo of sustainability against another? For example, if two companies spend the same amount but one invests in reducing negative environmental impacts, and the other invests in enhancing the pay of African workers, which is more sustainable? What metric can be used to evaluate one against the other?
A: I do not think that one should compare the silos of sustainability. Every measure that is taken to improve sustainability is a good one! What I have seen is that if a company implements sustainability measures that are (a) close to the heart; and (b) firmly in their span of control, the actions become much more effective.
Q: How has COVID affected sustainability plans? Have worldwide supply chain issues made it more difficult for companies to achieve sustainability?
A: I would rather argue that COVID has paved the way for a deeper involvement in sustainability! COVID has shown us very clearly the fragile nature of mankind, as well as the havoc that an unexpected pandemic can wreak on our world. If anything, companies should have realized that they need to take action, and then not necessarily far away but also close to home.
Q: I want to walk through the five steps you’ve previously outlined toward achieving sustainability. The first you mentioned is “discovery,” which essentially sounds like an interrogation of the business itself and what it is, and is not, doing. Why is this the most important place to start?
A: For sustainability to be successful in more than a commercial sense, sustainability should become part of everything. It is no longer a department that sits off to one side doing things that only the board knows about. Sustainability must be embedded in every part of a company’s DNA. Otherwise it often is better just not to do anything!
In my model, I take my clients on a journey of discovery so they get to understand sustainability in the broadest sense, but also their own motivation and reasons why they are becoming involved. If it is only because of market demands, it is one thing. If it is to truly change the course of the company, it is a completely different kettle of fish.
Q: The second is “alignment,” in which the companies have to identify their stakeholders and how they can help create sustainability. Give me a few examples of who these stakeholders might be and what role they can play in these efforts.
A: A stakeholder is any individual, organization or company that has a vested interest in your business and can potentially either affect or be affected by your business operations and performance. Typical stakeholders are investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities, governments, or trade associations. Stakeholders can be both internal, and external to your company. So it covers a really wide arena!
Q: What would happen to these efforts if the companies don't take their stakeholders into account?
A: It is the age-old concept of 1+1=3. Working with your stakeholders can create outstanding benefits. Ignoring them leads to chaos and conflict.
Q: Third is, “establishing priorities.” Obviously, each company will be different in their priorities, but what have you seen that works best? Which priorities lead to the greatest success?
A: As I stated before, if a company places focus on those areas or items of sustainability over which they have direct control, and which are ‘close to their hearts’, it will fast-track success. Of course, identifying possibilities for collaborations within one’s stakeholders also creates opportunities for taking big steps.
From our own experience: at one stage we wanted to launch a new, sustainability-oriented brand. We took this opportunity to carton manufacturers, trucking companies, shipping companies etc. If we had done this project in isolation, it would have cost 35% more, and taken a year to complete.
Q: The next step is, “implementation,” where companies need to work with their employees to identify the actions that can lead them to sustainability, and be sensitive to their needs. How can companies make sure they are working in partnership with their employees and minimally disrupting their day-to-day work? What’s the best way to facilitate that communication?
A: I am originally from South Africa. We have a process that we call ‘consultative dialogue’. This means that we take discussions from group to group and back again, until such time as we have found the right framework for our project or plan. I think the same process helps when implementing sustainability in a company. It is only by having many discussions that one finally reaches a point where all the boxes are ticked. Bear in mind that this is how to approach sustainability!
It certainly does not mean that this is the ‘alpha and omega’. My approach is very focused on achieving practical, effective, inspirational and collaborative sustainability. It will not work everywhere, but I have proven that it works really well in small and medium enterprises in which the owner wants to change the world.
Looking, Learning and Adapting
Q: Finally, there’s “looking, learning and adapting,” which looks to the future and how employees can create sustainability on their own. What are some ways you’ve seen them do this?
A: Well, firstly, sustainability must be a board room topic. Every time a formal meeting is held by the directors or the management team, sustainability must be part and parcel of the discussions. Decisions that must be taken should be measured in terms of the impact on sustainability.
Whoever is responsible for sustainability should regularly give an update to the staff detailing the progress that has been made. Publishing a colorful and inspiring newsletter that focuses only on sustainability creates even more momentum.
There should also be a focus on ‘looking outward’, i.e., drawing inspiration from other companies that are making inroads into sustainability.
Sustainability should not be something that ‘we do for ourselves’, but rather a process that brings together like-minded individuals and companies, even if they are competitors.
The issue of sustainability is an interesting one. There is no question it is catch word that appeals greatly to certain segments of the population, and also there is no question that many businesses have found the term and the movement the kind of thing with which they think it wise to align themselves.
Employees can be motivated and made to feel their employment is about more than just making money. They can be motivated by feeling there is a higher purpose in their work, and this is powerful.
Yet, despite there being countless courses, books and articles, it is not 100% clear what it means to commit to sustainability.
At its base, much of what is endorsed under sustainability is simply long-term thinking. So, if the lightbulbs in your warehouse use a lot of electricity, new, better bulbs that use less electricity may be more expensive in terms of initial installations costs but may save money over the lifetime of the bulb.
Offering the lowest wages and minimal benefits, just enough to allow you to staff your business, might be the wise short-term play. But, if this results in lots of turnover or hiring people of low quality people who can’t rise through the ranks, offering a better wage might increase short-term labor costs but increase long term profitability by reducing turnover — thus reducing recruitment costs, training costs and allowing people to gain greater expertise in their jobs and rise through the ranks.
The truth is the produce industry was great at environmental sustainability long before sustainability was cool. After all, keeping land rich and fertile is a requirement to maintain its value as farmland.
Sometimes sustainability gets sidelined because the financial condition of a company doesn’t allow for what might be the best long term option. In other words, if new bulbs for the warehouses cost $100,000, plus substantial installation costs and burn $100,000 a year in electricity — and will need to be replaced in a year — but sustainable light bulbs cost a million, will last 20 years and use only $50,000 a year in electricity, the financial calculation may well favor the million-dollar investment.
But… if you don’t have a million dollars, can’t borrow a million dollars, well that “solution” is not sustainable at all! You spend $100,000 and live to fight another day.
In the end, after years of studying this, it seems that sustainability is not actually a value choice. It makes no business or logical sense to be opposed to sustainability. It is just a practical matter. One issue, as mentioned above, is that because sustainability is about the long term, there are often short-term investments required, and not every company has the resources to do this.
The other issue, as Nic explains, is time:
Q: What stands in their way of achieving full sustainability?
A: In fresh produce, definitely time. Our industry is always under pressure, and we do not always comprehend long-term issues. For many years, fresh produce has centered only around commercial issues (buying/selling/trading/solving problems). To become involved in sustainability, one has to free up time from the daily activities and try to comprehend the implications of one’s actions (or non-actions) on the future.
This is, I think, the heart of the issue. The important thing to understand, though, is that this is not about paying attention to some distraction from the business; it is the business! It is about maximizing profitability and return on investment by recognizing the true costs of things.
All too often, businesses are on automatic pilot… constantly replacing the light bulbs because that is what they have always done. For many businesses, long term profitability can be enhanced by having a person on staff or an outside consultant who is basically in charge of taking the business off automatic pilot.
So decisions are not made just because “that is way we have always done it,” but are made because they offer the best returns.
One advantage of events such as The London Produce Show and Conference is that they give industry members an opportunity to delve into issues such as this. Sure, there is the buying and the selling… that is part of the event, but there is the “learning part” too — and this often presents the opportunity for greatest long term returns.
Come join us at ExCeL… network and learn and engage in issues such as how your organization should be dealing with issues around sustainability.
You can register for the event here.
There is still an opportunity to exhibit or sponsor, and you can tell us your interest here.
We look forward to seeing you at the “reunion edition” of The London Produce Show and Conference!
We’ve worked with John Giles for many years, running many pieces he has written and doing many interviews. You can see some of piece we have run here:
100 Days Post Brexit, What Are The Impacts On The Produce Sector?
Taking Trade To The Next Level: Where Does Peru Go From Here?
New Initiatives in Southern Hemisphere
What Are We Looking Forward To In 2020?
How The Pacific Alliance Could Work For UK
A More Resilient Supply Chain in Europe
Predictions for Europe’s Fresh Produce Sector in 2018?
What Do British Producers Need to Think About Post-Brexit?
What Is Happening Beyond Brexit?
Lessons from Peru and Chile Powerhouses
UK’s Organic Market Presents Opportunities For US
What Does Brexit Mean For The US Fruit Export Sector? What US Exporters Need To Know About The UK Market Europe’s Currency Advantage In Developing New Markets
In thinking about the “Reunion Edition” of The London Produce Show and Conference we needed someone to speak to the challenges facing the UK produce sector.
It wasn’t hard to know who to invite!
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
(The value chain consulting arm
of Genus plc.)
Q: We’re excited to welcome you back to the London Produce Show, where you’ve engaged participants, whether moderating panels or sharing wisdom through your work in some 60 markets around the world in the fresh produce sector. In addition, your sharp and varied columns in PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine and ProduceBusinessUK.com over the years have offer valued perspective.
The question you pose for your presentation is both broad and intriguing: Is This UK Horticulture’s Defining Decade?
A: To widen the appeal, I’ll be looking at impacts across the supply chain and horticulture world-wide.
Q: That’s great since you’ll be addressing diversified interests. The London Produce Show and Conference gathers renowned industry thought-leaders, high volume buyers and sellers from across the UK and around the world. And now it will be co-located with IFE, the International Food and Drink Event; and HRC, the Hotel, Restaurant and Catering Show; and as well as other food-related events.
A: Hopefully, it attracts a broad level of interest. I can cover a wide range of topics under this working title, but obvious areas are:
New trade deals
Use of horti-tech
Q: You’ve got your work cut out for you. For this preview piece, I may need to challenge you to a quick-fire round of questions.
A: I've got lots of thoughts swirling around in my head… where do you want to start?
Q: Well, it seems that many of these issues overlap. Should we start with Brexit and see where that takes us...
A: Yes, some of the things I talk about also have implications, not just for people in the UK, but other parts of the world as well. I think agricultural and food is going to go through a defining decade, basically. But we're seeing a heady cocktail of different things impacting on the UK market at the moment. Some of those are of our own making, and some of them are because of the things happening on the other side of the world.
But when you look at Brexit, we made the decision to leave the European Union. The end result of the referendum was actually quite tight — it was 52% for and 48% against. But we've left the EU, so we've made our bed, and we have to lie in it now. One of the implications of leaving the EU is the availability of what has been a ready supply of farm and packhouse labor.
I think it has two big impacts really. One is the ready supply of labor that used to come to the UK largely from Eastern Europe, which has sort of rapidly dried up. So, we have to try and find seasonal labor in particular from other parts of the world.
The other thing that we have experienced quite a lot of is what people are calling “trade friction” at the point of entry or point of exit. So what we're trying to export to the Continent, or, when we're bringing produce in from the Continent, there's additional paperwork, administration, and checks being made, there's been delays in the systems.
That’s an added cost at a time that we don't want to be adding any cost in the supply chain, because we're starting to experience inflation in the UK going anywhere between 5% and 10% over the next few months. And probably for 10 years, we've had food deflation in the UK, so it's not something we’re used to at all.
Q: Where are the greatest impacts? Do you have any examples, any quantifications to provide perspective?
A:The UK has never been a massive, large-scale exporter of fruit to the rest of Europe. We've always been a net fruit importer from Holland, Spain, Italy and France, in particular. So, there's obviously been impact at the point of entry coming into the UK.
But I think, by far, the biggest impact has been the labor shortages we've seen, not only at farm-level, but in pack houses around the UK. And towards the end of last year, we started seeing shortages of truck drivers and increasing fuel prices, and for horticultural businesses, the labour costs are the single biggest cost they face. They’re about, on average, between 40% and 50% of the overall cost of production. So, that's a big problem to have.
Then on top of that, we're now seeing this huge inflationary pressure, which is affecting the cost of everything else, so the cost of packaging, transport, fertilizers and so on... other agrichemicals that are being used in horticulture businesses, distribution costs, energy costs, for produce that's kept in cool storage, the electricity costs, they're all racing away Not just in the UK but in other parts of the world.
Energy costs in particular were drifting up gently for most of last year, but I think in the UK, we took our eye off the ball. We were too busy focused on Brexit and COVID; and then, suddenly, there's a massive explosion of price increases in September, where energy costs went through the roof.
Q: Right. There’s been a lot of turmoil with Brexit, while the UK is not alone in grappling with the pandemic...
A: I don't know whether we're the only people who took our eye off the ball, but I think in the UK it was an incredible shock. In the build up to, and since Brexit and now in the pandemic, we've been questioning our food security in the UK. One of the rationales for leaving the EU would have been that it will increase our self-sufficiency, and therefore, we would be more food secure. That’s proved not really to be the case. We are probably more food insecure than we have been for a generation In the build up to, and since Brexit and now in the pandemic — think of the last oil crisis in 1973, for those of you who can remember it.
I think there's a combination of factors that go towards this level of food insecurity at the moment. One is the labor situation; one is trade friction at the border; one is increasing energy prices, and the cost of everything else.
The number of horticulture producers in the UK has been going down for a long time. This is nothing new, you know, but the exit from the industry could be accelerated by what we're seeing now.
CLOSER LOOK AT HORTICULTURE
Q: Okay. For those unfamiliar, where are the key horticulture producers in the UK, what areas are struggling most, which products are having the most difficulties?
A: Horticulture activity takes place around the UK, but there are some strongholds, so you've got an area called Kent in the Southeast of England; Cornwall, Worcester, Lincolnshire, Shropshire, parts of Lancashire, parts of Scotland, along the south coast of England, and East Anglia.
So, there are pockets of horticultural activity all over the UK, but those are the powerhouses, where it's really very, very strong.
Historically, we've produced a wide range of produce, top fruit, soft fruit, and a little bit of stone fruit. But also vegetables, brassicas, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers — there's a vibrant industry in the UK for growing of all these products.
I think to some extent, it doesn't matter whether you're in Kent or Lincolnshire… They could be seen as being next door to each other. But in the UK, compared to the US, we think that 200 miles is a long way! And Scotland is over 250 miles away. But I think this isn't an issue for any one single part of the UK, and it's not an issue for any one single crop sector.
In a worst-case scenario, if this carries on, horticulture producers may... well, they've got several options, they could stop producing altogether. They could produce less. They could end up with crops that they have to sell at distressed prices. The other thing they can do, but it doesn’t happen overnight of course, is have the appetite for investing in automation. The need for mitigating against this wide range of factors that are impacting on the sector has probably never been higher. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
Q: It can require some risk/benefit analysis with big costs upfront before seeing the return on investment...
A: We've been looking at the opportunity for automated planting, picking and packing systems in the UK for some time, and we sort of decided not to go down that route, not least because there's always been this ready supply of labor, and making the decision is not an easy one. I think, however, people are looking at it more seriously now than ever before. But making the decision to do that is not an easy one, and it can be expensive in the short term.
Then there are other implications as well. Some of these farms can employ a thousand people. The general thinking is that automation will create different, new types of jobs, and probably higher skilled jobs, and therefore, higher wage jobs. But you might have a lot of people who find themselves out of a job. Some of those people might be on temporary contracts and seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, and there's lots of Ukrainians and Russians working in the UK, or there has been... you might end up saying, well, we don't need them.
But then, if you take a thousand people out of the local economy, what they spend in the shops, what they spend on food in supermarkets... they won't go to the local pub on a Friday night. Suddenly, there's a thousand people taken out of the local economy. That has all sorts of impacts on the overall prosperity of that community.
Q: What is the cause and effect?
A: What we would refer to as an unintended consequence. So, on one level, investing in automation looks like the answer to what is an increasingly serious problem. But by doing that, it creates problems in other parts of the economy. All these areas I talk about are essentially rural farming areas.
THE RETAIL PERSPECTIVE
Q: Can we discuss this from a retail perspective?
A: Well, the retailers aren't immune from what's going on at all. The issue of labor goes across the whole supply chain, whether you're in farming or packing or distributing or in retail. And supermarkets have to pay for petrol for their trucks; they have to pay for electricity for their stores; they have to pay for packaging... so, all these things are affecting companies across the supply chain, and to a greater or lesser extent, the supermarkets themselves.
Consumers are being exposed to that as well. We're paying more for our electricity and gas...it's a part of a public debate that's going on in the UK about this huge inflationary pressure we're facing in the UK. And supermarkets are often seen as key players in this. The top supermarket in the UK accounts for 75% of food sales. So, they have a big role to play in controlling inflation, and what they do in terms of pricing strategies does impact on the overall inflationary pressure in the UK.
Q: Can you talk more about the UK retail environment and its impact on sales and pricing... traditional supermarket concentration, influx of discounters, inroads with Amazon Fresh, etc.
A: We've had supermarket concentration in the UK — or the concentration of buying power of the supermarkets in the UK that has been going on for 20 years. So, this is nothing new. The biggest supermarket in the UK is Tesco, and they have some 28% of the market. And then you've got Sainsbury's ASDA and Morrison's...
The big change in the UK over the past five, six, seven years is the growth of the discounters, Aldi and Lidl. And then also the growth of online shopping, which during the pandemic saw huge increases. Online shopping in the UK went through the roof. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that not everybody's going to carry on online shopping, but there's also quite a lot of people who have decided that they don't need to go to a supermarket on a Saturday morning, they can do it online, and get it anytime of the night or day, and it turns up like magic.
So, if you look at the major supermarkets in the UK, they are put under pressure by the growth of the discounters who've completely changed the face of UK retailing, and then, online shopping.
Q: But online shopping occurs with the supermarkets as well, right?
A: Yes, most of the main supermarkets have their online shopping facility now, but there are the others, what they call the disruptors like Amazon Fresh coming in the market.
In the UK, I am not sure we are going to consume any more fruits and vegetables. We're just going to buy them in different ways.
Q: So, you are of the school that consumption is going to stay pretty much status quo...
A: We've been trying to boost consumption in the UK through various schemes. There's been many industry, and even government, schemes to try to boost consumption. The 5 A Day campaign could be the most classic. We’ve had some success, but the World Health Organization recommends the level of consumption for a well-balanced diet. We're well below that in the UK.
Q: It’s an issue in the US as well, and throughout Europe as evidenced by the latest consumption reports...
A: Yes, we’re not the only ones, but we still don't eat enough fruit and vegetable in the UK. There was a National Food Strategy report for the government that came out towards the end of last year, done by Henry Dimbleby — Dimbleby comes from a very long line of famous journalists, and he's also an entrepreneur in the food sector.
He was asked by the government to write what should be the national food strategy. One of the things he talked about was that, basically, in view of the climate change pressures we're facing, meat and dairy consumption should be reduced and a plant-based diet, including fruits and vegetables and nuts and pulses — we should be eating more of those products.
So part of the official government policy has been, and is now being reinforced by Dimbleby, that we should be eating more fruits and vegetables. Most industries in the UK would give their right arm for government reporting to buy more of our products.
Q: This independent report involves sweeping recommendations from taxing sugar and salt to investing a billion dollars in innovation to create a better food system...
A: Well, what we're very good at in the UK is writing important reports and holding enquiries with lots of recommendations, and then forgetting to implement them. For the Dimbleby report, the official response of the government to this document is still awaited. And they’ve probably got a few other things on their mind at the moment.
I think we are the world champions at writing these sorts of documents. Whenever there's a problem, not just in agriculture and food, but any part of the economy, we have a commission, an inquiry, a government report, and we're great at doing that, and it takes a long time.
The publication of Dimbleby's report was delayed because of COVID, but we're fantastic at producing reports saying what all the problems are, but we're much less good at actually doing anything about it at the end of the day.
I'll tell you of a country that is really good at doing that sort of thing …. our colleagues in Ireland.
Q: That's interesting.
A: When they write a report, they get together and say, okay, what are we going to do, and then they get on and do it. We can learn a lot from them.
Q: More urgently, I was hoping you could talk about this frightening situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A: Yes. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, we're getting more worried about what Putin's real intentions are. I think people are desperately upset, we see this played out on the news in front of us, haven't we, in our own living rooms?
From London to Ukraine in an airplane is about three or four hours. I'm not saying if it's far away from home, we're not interested or not concerned, but this is a war in Europe, which we haven't had for 75 years.
Q: From your vantage point, what are some of the repercussions that could happen? what are some of the dangers...?
A: I think at a personal level, I'm as concerned as the next person about how this might escalate. And from a business point of view, the company I work for, our parent company, we've got businesses in both Russia and the Ukraine.
Q: Oh my, what is happening with those businesses? What is your parent company doing?
A: They are livestock breeding businesses. So, mainly pigs, beef and dairy.
Q: Have you stopped operations in Ukraine or in Russia?
A: The operations carry on, but in difficult circumstances. We are supporting our colleagues and our customers in any way we can at the moment.
I think the other thing we know is that, again, in the UK, in the horticulture sector, where we started, most of the firms in the UK employ Ukrainian labor and Russian labor on a seasonal basis, or six-monthly basis. And so, there are now problems with the availability.
We've seen through Brexit, the East Europeans, such as Poles, Hungarians, Romanians… returned home. They've been replaced to some extent by Russians and Ukrainians. And now, there's a problem with the availability of that labor — can Ukrainians get to the UK? Do they want to go back home and be with their friends and family or even fight for their country? What do you do with a farm where you've got Russians and Ukrainians working on it together?
Q: Do we dare talk about sustainability in all this? There are so many different issues going on, and sometimes people say, well, maybe that is going to be put on hold, but in fact isn’t the sustainability agenda integral?
A: It will be tempting to think, okay, we’ve got all these other things going on — Brexit, COVID, Ukraine, Russia, what have you. In my view though, we cannot afford to ignore the sustainability agenda, and actually it might become even more important as a result of these things, which COVID showed in the UK.
With the challenges that are being set and the targets that need to be met, we should be increasing the efforts on sustainability.
Q: Sustainability encompasses many different things, some refer to the three legs or pillars of sustainability — social, environmental, economic, or people, planet, and profits...
A: Yes, sustainability is a wonderfully big word, isn't it? Sustainability in horticulture can be anything from reducing pesticide usage on crops, selling more local supply, localized supply chains. It can be the whole question of water usage. It can be recycling of packaging. It can be responsible employment of labor. It can be reducing airfreighted produce. It can be using renewable energy. It can cover all these things and more. Growing on a more seasonal basis, possibly. Reducing food waste in the supply chain. I think we are partly there, but we still need to be doing better.
In the UK, occasionally, we console ourselves that we seem to be slightly ahead in terms of meeting the targets that have been set by the United Nations sustainability goals. If we are doing better than others but it doesn't mean for one minute that we should take our foot off the pedal. In some cases, we should be helping other people to show them what we've done and how we've done it, and the impact it's having.
Q: Right. There is the low hanging fruit or the steps that can reduce energy costs, water use, increase efficiencies, for instance, that are more sustainable, and you’re also helping your business from an economic standpoint. The social side, ethical sourcing, etc., may be harder to quantify financially, at least initially...
A: This is always a challenge of course, but there is lots of evidence, even if you don’t see an instant impact, that companies and industries that invest in sustainability end up being more profitable, because they are reducing the use of expensive inputs.
There are some people who say, well, it doesn't really matter what we do in the UK. So, in the “little old UK”, we could do whatever we want, we won't really shift the outcome, it's only impactful if the US and India and China and other big economies around the world reduce their carbon emissions significantly.
We hosted the COP26 Conference in Scotland just towards the end of last year. We are trying to show leadership on these issues. It’s a huge meeting of all countries in the world, discussing over two or three weeks the issue of the environment and sustainability.
You can't be asking countries like the United States, like India, like China to be making improvements in their sustainability and carbon emissions if you don't do it yourself.
Q: Is the main issue with this conference more with livestock, big ag, other industries, etc., as compared to fresh fruits and vegetables?
A: We are involved in this debate as our parent company is a global beef and dairy genetics business. Livestock farming often gets a certain level of adverse attention, particularly from the NGO community, in some parts of North America, the Oceania countries, Europe, and Brazil.
Most responsible livestock companies, though, are bending over backwards to find ways of mitigating methane emissions and climate change. And so, in respect to our business, our parent company’s business starts with breeding animals that produce meat and dairy products on a more sustainable basis. In this respect, Genus became a founder member of the Greener Cattle Initiative announced at COP26 to conduct research into ways of reducing methane from cattle.
It certainly though doesn't absolve horticulture from saying “it's nothing to do with us… we are not the bad guys, we are the good guys,”
Horticulture has a major role to play all around the world. Fruit and vegetable production can use lots of water. The industry employs lots of seasonal labor around the world. They use chemical inputs, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and are big users of packaging and freight. There’s no point in looking over the fence at dairy and beef farms and saying, well, you're the problem. First, they aren’t, and secondly, it’s a dangerous position to take the moral high ground.
In our view, everybody — every horticultural farmer, livestock farmer, dairy farmer, cereal farmer... food processor, retailer, and the consumer — has a role to play.
Q: Got it. Connecting this back to the National Food Strategy report for the UK government, telling consumers to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and reduce consumption of products like beef and salt/sugar-laden items, that might not be the most profitable strategy for retailers. What does that mean for these other industries if you're trying to switch?
A: Okay, this brings up some a lot of questions. Should we reduce our meat and dairy consumption, replace it with fruits, vegetables, nuts and pulses?. We might be right. But what is more environmentally damaging? Producing grass-fed beef in Southwest England or Wales, or air freighting vegetables from East Africa every night into the UK, or blueberries from Peru — as opposed to eating local food? There are no easy answers here. There is a lot of evidence to suggest too that meat and dairy products can contribute to a healthy and balanced diet.
So, which is best? I think we've got a lot of livestock and dairy farmers in the UK who would say, actually, we're doing less damage, we're actually doing better for the environment than you guys are who are air-freighting off-season berries in from Central America.
Q: Right. In some cases, local produce is not an option. But then you also could be helping impoverished farmers in Africa, and that could be social sustainability... In addition, also looking at the full lifecycle of a product through the supply chain can provide unexpected results on what is more sustainable...
A: Well, again, these issues are incredibly complex, and that's why we need some clear thinking on them. There are some people in the UK market that say air-freighting vegetables from East Africa every night in an airplane is not a good use of the planet's scarce resources. Yet that’s how lots of farmers in Africa make their living.
Q: Right, and then you also need to look at how they're farming. Maybe they're using energy from the sun and that’s more sustainable than the alternative...
A: These issues are complicated and require some good discussion...
LONDON PRODUCE SHOW
Q: That’s a nice segue to the London Produce Show, where executives from different parts of the supply chain and innovative thought leaders will join together in one place.
A: We've all been locked up for the past two years. We haven't been able to go to this sort of event, or we've chosen not to because we had concerns about COVID. So, the last time the London Produce Show was taking place was three years ago now. I think people in the UK are ready to start going to these sorts of things again, with the appropriate precautions in place.
It’s a great opportunity to see the people we haven't seen for two or three years maybe, perhaps you've only seen them on a Zoom call — we are, by nature, sociable people. Talking to people on Zoom and Teams is fine of course and the way we have done things for the past 2 years, but meeting people face-to-face is even better. You're probably going to meet some old friends — and make some new ones.
These supply chain issues are complex to get our heads around. The seminar program and speaker program you have in place is one way of starting to address them.
We all need to be better informed individually and collectively regarding sustainability priorities, what's going to happen to Ukraine, what's going to happen to distribution in the UK, and labor costs.
The other reason to attend is to do a bit of business, and we all want extra business.
Q: To conclude, we’ve covered a lot… is there anything I've been remiss in not asking you or that you feel would be important to highlight in this overview preview piece?
A: What I might say is in the UK, and maybe in other parts of the world, we sometimes say agriculture and horticulture is due to a series of supply chain shocks at a tipping point. That might have been in the 1970s with the Gulf Oil Crisis. It might have been in 2008 when we had the Global Financial Crisis. It might have been when we had a War in the Gulf. In might have been in the UK, when we had problems with foot-and-mouth and BSE livestock diseases. In the last 2 years we have had COVID. In the UK we have had Brexit but there have been knock on impacts to the rest of the world too as a result.
So, when we say, “agriculture is at a bit of a tipping point now,” everyone sort of nods their head and says, “yeah, you're right, things are going to change.” Then we go back to carry on doing things largely as they were.
I think now, you could say this really is a make-your-mind-up time. We haven't got just one or two things happening around the world. We've got geopolitical instability; we've got soaring energy prices; we've got labor problems; we've got Brexit problems; we've got trade problems; we've got agri-tech challenges... There's simply too many things to ignore.
The title of my presentation at the LPS is: “Will this be horticulture’s defining decade?” I think we are at a tipping point in the evolution of agricultural farming and food systems, and if we don't do anything about it, I don't think we're going to get away with it this time. We might regret it.
For me, everything ultimately comes down to climate change and greenhouse emissions, but now you throw in all these other things we’re talking about. And we are only two years into the decade. When you look at the assembled evidence, we’re going to go through a very turbulent five, six, seven, eight years.
And of course, for some of the best prepared and best informed companies in the supply chain, this will produce a good deal of opportunity to do things differently than in the past. It’s going to be a tremendously challenging and exiting time, for the produce sector, not just in the UK but in other parts of the world, even if a bit scary too.
One of the key issues we face is how to deal with multiple concerns. In the US, the very first official action of President Biden was to kill the Keystone Pipeline, which was designed to bring oil from Canada down to the US.
We have many pipelines in the US, so those seeking to prevent Keystone from opening were not so much in opposition to this particular pipeline, but to the idea of our nation continuing as an oil-dependent economy. The political bodies that pushed President Biden to act would not be happy with any oil pipeline in the US.
In Germany, they have been closing down nuclear power plants making the country more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
These decisions can be defended based on all kinds of concerns, such as environmental issues. Yet they all have implications that need to be considered, and it is not clear our political systems do a very good job in this area.
One could argue that Russia’s entire effort in Ukraine has been paid for by the increase in oil prices during the Biden administration. Yet, there was virtually no discussion of the likely increase of Russian strength caused by greater dependence on Russian oil and gas.
And, of course, if the consequence of the effort leads to a nuclear effort, well who knows what the environmental consequences might be?
This is a big issue and a current one. But all decisions have multiple effects. John Giles begins this survey thinking about things, like if we mechanize harvesting what happens to the towns that depend on the business of serving harvest labor? If grocery delivery expands, what happens to the economic viability of physical shops? So much more.
So this presentation is an opportunity to think broad and think deep… to find ways to use this transformational moment to leap ahead as an industry.
We hope you will join John Giles in his presentation at The London Produce Show and Conference. We hope you will join us as we seek ways to move the industry forward.
You can register to attend the event here.
You can inquire about exhibiting and sponsorship opportunities here.
We look forward to seeing you at the ExCeL center in London for the rebirth of the London Produce Show and Conference!
We’ve been writing about Rich Dachman for a long time. We’ve had many interactions with him as a result of his long career with Sysco:
Dachman To Head Sysco’s Produce Division
2018 London Produce Show’s Thought-Leader Breakfast Features All-Star Cast Of Industry Luminaries
Foodservice Forum At New York Produce Show Puts Produce First On Restaurant Menus
Set Your Alarm For Wednesday, December 7, As 10 Heavyweight Thought Leaders Take The Stage At New York Produce Show’s Keynote Breakfast
Industry Veterans And Rising Stars Volunteer To Lead University Interchange Mentorship Program
“IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum At New York Produce Show And Conference To Tackle Produce Procurement ‘Disconnects’
Also several since he decided to devote his life to the non-profit sector with the goal of increasing produce consumption:
While Brighter Bites Steps Up With Retail Voucher Program And Participation In USDA’s Farmers-To-Families Food Box Project, Produce Industry Heroes Are Needed To Provide Product, Distribution And Funding
EXCLUSIVE PRESENTATION AT NEW YORK PRODUCE SHOW: Non-Profit Brighter Bites Takes Scientific Approach To Increase Produce Consumption And Create Long Term Consumers
He was also named as one of the 35 produce industry Vanguards on the occasion of the 35th Anniversary of PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine:
Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: RICH DACHMAN
This year he crosses the Atlantic to join us a featured speaker at The London Produce Show and Conference.
Rich Dachman, former VP of Produce for Sysco, first participated in the London Produce Show and Conference as part of the 2018 Thought Leader Panel, and this year, Dachman, now Brighter Bites CEO, returns to the 2022 show as a presenter on March 22. At Brighter Bites, Dachman brings his lifelong expertise in the produce industry, as well as his passion for making healthy fruits and vegetables accessible to all.
Brighter Bites is a nonprofit that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables directly into families’ hands, with a goal of changing behavior among children and their families to prevent obesity and achieve long-term health. Since 2012, Brighter Bites has provided more than 50 million pounds of produce and millions of nutrition education materials to more than 500,000 individuals (including teachers) in Houston, Dallas, Austin, TX; New York City; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area; southwest Florida and Salinas, CA. In January 2022, Brighter Bites expanded its programming to Los Angeles, CA, and will be expanding to Bakersfield, CA, this fall.
The secret sauce is that the organization emphasizes results, and participates in research to track outcomes. Ongoing evaluation lets Brighter Bites assess what works and what doesn’t, toward the goal of increasing demand for, and intake of, fruits and vegetables among low-income children and their families.
Previously in the Pundit, Dachman provided an in-depth look at the challenges the Brighter Bites team undertook during the pandemic, employing resourceful, multi-tiered strategies to ensure the program continued to thrive and extend its reach with the rising plight of families in need. [You can read the full piece here: While Brighter Bites Steps Up with Retail Voucher Program, And Participation In USDA’s Farmers-To-Families Food Box Project, Produce Industry Heroes Are Needed to Provide Product, Distribution And Funding]
At the 2021 New York Produce Show, Dachman encouraged all present to support any program “that gets people to be healthier by consuming more of the products that we grow.”
I think we're a bit naïve, and we think everybody understands if you eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll be healthier, but I'm not sure everybody really gets that,” Dachman said.
It’s not just about buying and selling produce — there’s a purpose in the industry, of unity that is more important than ever right now. You have consumers out there who are looking to be healthier and finding ways to be healthier in fear of what may happen to them. Our products are the proactive answer to help. And the industry, as I've said often, needs to get together and figure out how to message that to people.”
We asked Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to share an update on Dachman’s role at Brighter Bites, and the organization’s growth.
Q. You got involved with Brighter Bites after reading an article about its founder, Lisa Helfman, in the local newspaper. Why did that article spark your interest?
A. That article pretty much hit every nerve that I had — I've always been a huge proponent of using the produce industry as a health vehicle for people. It's important to me. You can't be healthy without eating fresh fruits and vegetables. It's impossible. And they just happen to taste really, really good, and they're really good for you.
I never thought we did enough to really market that to the population. So, finding an organization that directed its efforts toward behavior change and using produce as the vehicle was spot on for me. I just contacted Lisa at that point, and it's just turned into a beautiful long-term relationship. I joined the board and then ultimately became CEO. My relationship with Brighter Bites has just been really magical.
Q. How did you make that connection between health and the produce industry? I mean, obviously, it's hand in hand, but not everybody develops that.
A. I grew up in my father's produce business, and we were able to bring fruits and vegetables home from the market, so we would always have a huge amount of fruits and vegetables when I was growing up. I think, in general, no matter what you do, you have to live what you believe — and you have to represent yourself to your customers and your employees through sincere belief and whatever it is you do. So if we're in the produce industry, and we can't even represent to our own employees and our own customers how important eating and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables is, and being healthy, then I think you have a hard time selling your product. There's no sincerity. So I just think that's a good business practice in general.
I just believe you have to walk the walk. I hate to say it, but if you follow an unhealthy diet, and you're obese with diabetes, and you're sitting there trying to sell somebody fresh fruits and vegetables, it's a hard sell. People need to believe you believe in your own product.
I think we owe it to ourselves to take responsibility to try to help the world. I've been blessed with this wonderful involvement in this extraordinary industry. We have the power to change lives: Our product is the proactive prescription for health. Not many industries can say that. We're lucky to be part of that opportunity and have that solution in our hands — and it's a shame that we wouldn't use it. I really believe the whole industry should get behind it. I've always said the industry is short-sighted when it comes to this — they're about selling a product and getting a return for it, and not looking at it as an overall marketing strategy to understand the true power of our product.
Q. How has Brighter Bites been working, specifically, to raise consumption of fruits and vegetables?
A. What Brighter Bites does is go the last mile. It's very unusual. We're changing the lives of our families, and we have data to show that those are changed. I’ve always called it hand-to-hand combat — we’re the ones on the battlefield, fighting for one family at a time. We're not like others that are like broad air support, with broad messaging, which, yes, we need. But the Brighter Bites program goes in and we give 20 pounds of produce to a family during the school year, and we also have a summer program.
The traditional distribution model is pallets of bulk produce are brought out to a school, and volunteers bring them into the school area, whether it be the cafeteria or the auditorium. And then assembly lines are manned with parent volunteers and, with the supervision of our staff, they create bags for distribution that day.
During the pandemic, when we couldn't even get in schools or schools had shut down, we went to a pre-box program where we paid either our food bank partners or our distribution partners to build the boxes for us with the amount of produce and varieties that we require. Then we would have parking lot distributions, so even when the kids weren't in school, the family would still come pick up their produce. We only deal with schools that have a minimum of 80% free lunch, so we’re working with under-resourced families. We estimate the produce that we give them would cost around $30 to $35 a week at retail, which is big for a family.
Most importantly, are our nutrition lessons that are taught in school. When we go into a school for three years, it’s required that teachers teach our Nutrition Education lessons to the students and also have a minimum number of produce activities with the kids. We also have recipes and teach people how to use our products. So they are physically receiving the product at no cost — and then we're teaching what's important about nutrition and why it's important that you eat right.
We're in a school for three years. And during that time, we have proof from our co-founder, Dr. Shreela Sharma and her team, through many, many surveys and published papers, that we change behavior in those families. And we've done follow-up two years after we’ve left a school and determined that the behavior change still exists.
The statistics showed 19 extra servings of fresh produce being consumed from baseline even two years after we left a school. So we can confirm behavior change — and we're creating consumers for the industry on a permanent basis.
[Editor’s note: Brighter Bites co-founder Dr. Shreela Sharma developed the research infrastructure for the program and ensures rigorous replication across all its sites. She is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health (UTHealth) and a trained dietitian and physical therapist. You can read more about the Brighter Bites research in this Q&A with Dr. Sharma:
Q. Tell me how the program has expanded beyond the Houston, TX, area.
A. This year is our 10-year anniversary, and we’re planning a very large fundraising event in the Houston area to celebrate our anniversary, and we’re very excited about that. But the program started in Houston and expanded to Austin and Dallas. Since then, we have expanded to New York, Washington DC, southwest Florida. We also are now in Salinas, CA, and, within the last couple weeks actually, we started in Los Angeles, which we're really excited about. We're going to be starting in Bakersfield this fall as our third California city, and we have plans to also open up Phoenix, AZ, this fall, which will be our 10th city in our 10th year.
Q. So if you could wave a magic wand, what would you like the produce industry to do as a whole to raise the produce consumption — and overall health — bar?
A. Our industry is extraordinarily fragmented when it comes to funding the necessary marketing that communicates to the consumer. I think the industry needs to centralize itself to be able to build a large enough fund to actually get messaging across to the consumer in the right way.
We have a product that's better for you than anything else you could eat. Yet companies are spending tens of millions of dollars marketing a product like macaroni and cheese — convincing people to eat it — and we're not doing anything. It's sad. We're not growing produce consumption, because I just don't think we're putting in enough effort, and we're not messaging people in the appropriate manner.
I understand they're all competing against each other, and it’s very difficult for them to say, ‘I'm gonna go in with my competition to help sales.' And there's a lot of individual commodity advisory councils out there and so forth where products are already getting money — it may not be a lot, but they're getting money to build demand, whether it's strawberries or blueberries or citrus. But each one of them is individually trying to say, ‘eat blueberries,’ or ‘eat oranges,' and they need to understand the concept if people start eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, they’re all going to gain. Everybody's going to gain.
Q. At the London show, you’ll be presenting to people who aren’t familiar with Brighter Bites. What is it that people are most interested in learning?
I would say trying to grasp what causes behavior change and how it's sustained. People are also intrigued and want to know more about the process: How do you do that? How do you get an elementary school child to change his/her eating behavior and how do you prove that? Any of us who have kids know that that's not an easy thing to do. But when you actually go out to these distributions, and the kids wait in line to get their boxes or their bags, and they immediately want to look in the bag to see what's there… They look up with bright eyes at their mom or dad and say, ‘oh my, we have mangos today’ or ‘we have a couple of avocados’ and they're literally joyful when they see that… It's really one of the most gratifying moments you could have.
You know, that item used to be cookies and candy, so to see them get excited about a fruit or vegetable is an extraordinary victory. I try to portray that to people so they understand.
We’re not saying we're going to start Brighter Bites in London, although we are partnering to a great degree with the International Fresh Produce Association, and they're a global organization and very helpful in what we do. But I think the messaging in London needs to be about the importance of health and the importance of using your industry to be responsible and to be a part of that. Brighter Bites is a great example of how that works.
Generally speaking, people in the produce industry really want to be to help people. What if you can show them that they're actually helping a family with a need, and that they can touch that? Almost everybody is like, ‘I really want to be a part of that.’ We have an industry that really is empathetic about people; they want to help. So, if you can show someone that they're affecting a life in a positive way, most of the time, we have wonderful people in our industry who want to get behind that.
Q. So how can people help?
A. I always say you have to ask for the order in the end. The ‘ask’ for me is what we do with Brighter Bites is very expensive, because we provide all the produce for free, we have our own staff at every school, feeding the families and managing the whole process. We can go as far as we're funded.
There are generally three needs when you have to open up a Brighter Bites. First, you need people in need, schools in need — and when we go into a city, it’s never hard to find enough schools. Second, we have to provide produce and the logistics of produce and, quite frankly, we're always able to find a way to get that done. And the third thing is you need to fund it — and that's the most difficult part, is finding funding to get this done.
I don't want this to be a commercial or anything, but that's where we need help. We're all struggling, but we need some more funding that could be funneled into what we're doing so we can expand it to reach more families and more cities. We do have USDA SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance-Education) funds that support us in Texas, California and New York, and they're spectacular, but I think there's a lot more USDA funds out there that we could somehow plug into. But I hope the private produce industry could get behind this a little bit more, and, as big as they are, help Brighter Bites expand, and expand the consumption of their product.
Rich has a wealth of knowledge. He engaged heavily in the UK when Sysco purchased Brakes and Fresh Direct, and he will bring to London an unparalleled engagement in fresh produce, foodservice and the industry efforts to boost consumption.
In addition to his presentation, there will be a robust Q&A and the UK audience can ask questions such as these:
If someone in a non-US location, such as the UK, was interested in funding something like a UK Division of the non-profit Brighter Bites, would its board consider going international?
If someone wanted to set up a similar organization to Brighter Bites type in their country, say the UK, what are the biggest obstacles? We can challenge Rich to identify five guideposts.
If someone wanted to support the idea of boosting consumption, but there was no Brighter Bites in their market or in their country, what other approaches could they use?
Some more specific questions as well:
How does Brighter Bites get the produce? Do they buy it? Is it donated? What if I want to sell to Brighter Bites? Who buys it? Someone local? Someone at headquarters? In each regional hub?
How is the assortment in the box determined? By whom? When is this determination made? If I can offer a great deal on avocados, will they increase the number of avocados in a bag?
How does distribution work? If I sell or donate a trailer of apples to Brighter Bites in a particular city, do they have a warehouse or partner with a produce company? How do the logistics work?
It will be a demanding and robust discussion.
We can say this: The world is filled with efforts to boost consumption of produce, but very few of these programs have gone through the rigorous science-based approach that Brighter Bites has to prove it can actually increased consumption.
This opens the door to funding from not only the industry, but other non-profits and the government.
Now, not enough time has passed to know the long-term impact. Do children, impacted by the Brighter Bites program, eat more produce as grown adults? Do they feed their own children more produce?
These are questions that only time and study will answer. But the program is more rigorous than almost any, and, so far, the numbers are looking good. Rich is just one man, but if he can get the poor to eat fruits and vegetables as higher income people do, he will be responsible for not just helping the industry, but for improving the health of millions and millions of people. What an incredible journey!
Come listen to Rich, sign up to attend The London Produce Show and Conference here. We still have a few stands remaining; come display by letting us know here or help sponsor the event to make it all possible. You can ask for information here.
We have worked with ICA’s Maria Wieloch, as she is not only an exceptional industry leader, but a rare trifecta, having presented at our events in London, Amsterdam and New York on a diverse range of topics:
ICA’s Maria Wieloch Headlines Educational Seminar At London Produce Show; Talks About Halloween, Easter And How To Lift Produce Consumption
Global Trade Symposium Welcomes Maria Wieloch, Who Will Give Insights On Produce Category Management At ICA Sweden
2018 London Produce Show’s Thought-Leader Breakfast Features All-Star Cast of Industry Luminaries
Lessons from Sweden: Leading food retailer steps up sustainability initiatives
London Produce Show: ICA scoops international award for marketing produce to kids
Now, as the industry and the world open up, Maria joins us with word of an important and, indeed, extraordinary effort being made at ICA to help the health of its customers by increasing produce consumption.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Senior Category Manager
Fruit, Vegetables and Flowers
ICA Sverige AB
Q: Hi Maria, how wonderful you’ll be coming back to the London Produce Show as the show reconvenes.
A: I’m so happy to have this virtual time with you and to reunite in person soon. I’m super thrilled to be able to join the Produce Show in London. I miss the buzz of the industry and engaging with all fellow colleagues, suppliers, and wonderful people of produce. I haven’t seen the industry in... it was Madrid in 2019 I think the last time I was in a big fair. It’s been a long, long time.
Everything is really opening up here and over in Europe...We’re also looking forward now to Berlin, the big Fruit Logistica fair there. And first we have London.
Q: Let’s give attendees a sneak preview of the latest insights you’ll be sharing with attendees on your bold strategies to increase produce consumption. You’ve been aggressive in pinpointing winning formulas. ICA Sweden won the International Award for Marketing Fresh Produce to Children at the 2018 London Produce Show, recognized for an imaginative initiative over the Halloween period, causing a stir with a line of monster-themed fruits and vegetables that generated notable sales and media attention.
Translating the innovative concept to the Easter holiday proved less successful for several reasons, which you forthrightly delineated at LPS19. In any case, you’ve opined that sustaining increased consumption long-term is the challenge. What do you have up your sleeve to make it happen?
A: All Swedish operations within ICA Gruppen have adopted a new health strategy based on the ambition of making it easier for our customers to live a healthy life, in line with their situation and circumstances. The strategy focusses especially on children and young people. One target is to significantly increase produce consumption to 500 grams per day by 2025.
Q: You face an uphill battle, based on a compilation of consumption stats over time remaining somewhat status quo. The recently released Eurostat report, Freshfel Consumption Monitor, and U.S. consumption data generally confirm this dilemma, acknowledging a range of variables in assessing results... [See Philippe Binard Q&A to gain further perspective]
At the same time, ICA Sweden’s health strategy seems to encompass a much broader umbrella with produce consumption as an important component in ICA’s mission to help consumers live a healthy life...
A: Yes, it’s quite an aggressive goal, I must say, and the goal was adopted with the ICA health strategy shift in 2020-21, so all last year, first of all. 2020 was the year that we really took on the ICA health strategy, which is not only about increasing consumption of fruit and veg, but it's also about reducing sugar and using less antibiotics in the meat industry, because that's also a problem.
So that's for the physical health, and then there's a part on the psychology side, where we work with other parts of our organization. You know, we have a bank and insurance as well in our ICA group, where they will do some strategic adoptions to make sure that people lead a healthy life there as well.
But if we go to the 500 grams a day when ICA adopted the health strategy, it's important, of course, to have a goal that's measurable, and 30% reduction in sugar, it's very, very, concrete and very measurable. Then the next step was, okay, how can we find a good goal to measure health with produce, because that's not the easiest thing. But we have authorities that recommend you should eat 500 grams a day.
When we twisted and turned about it, we thought, well, this is actually a very good goal because it's easily communicated. It's something a lot of people know... it's a part of growing up, we have the five-a-day, which is commonly used by kids and so on. After a lot of discussions, we agreed this is a goal we feel we can adopt.
As the biggest supermarket chain in Sweden, we also feel obliged to make a difference, because the health facts are not going in the right direction --not related to COVID, but to other issues. There are a lot of health issues connected to foods, but also to people not leading a healthy lifestyle and moving and everything.
Q: Where does produce consumption fit within that spectrum and in your sphere of influence? [As reported on the ICA Gruppen website: “With around 1,300 stores and a market share of around 36%, ICA Sweden is the leading grocery retailer in the country. The business is operated in cooperation with independent ICA retailers. Each owns and operates their own store, which makes it possible for them to tailor concepts and offers to local demand. There is also extensive collaboration on things like expansion, sourcing, logistics, IT and marketing communication, enabling economies of scale...]
A: Well, the moving part maybe is difficult for us to affect, but food is something that we definitely can affect… that we should take a part in trying to affect, so that fit really well in the health strategy ICA wanted to adopt.
But, of course, this is a goal people know about, and we've known about it for some time. The troubling part is that consumption has been quite flat for a while, a long period of time. We've seen a slight increase in the past year, but when we do the analysis, we believe that's mainly due more to other things, not health, but sustainability.
We have Greta Thunberg, the young girl who is influencing the whole world in sustainability. She's Swedish, so it's been really vivid and alive here... She's this schoolgirl who started doing strikes. Every Friday, she would stand outside of our Parliament for the future of the climate, and it's grown to be this humongous movement all over the world – it's called Fridays For Future. It's been going on for one-and-a-half years, I think.
Q: And you see a direct link with Greta Thunberg’s activism and increased produce sales at ICA?
A: She's huge. But she's young, so she had a big impact on the kids and the whole movement, so we saw a small shift in sales connected to that because it's due to sustainability, which was already linked to produce, and people were doing Meat-Free Mondays and all of that.
Q: This also was taking place during the pandemic...
A: But then you had COVID, which kind of just threw the whole world upside down, and everything we knew just stopped and everything went into limbo, and then people started to find new ways to function, and new perspectives on health. There are a lot of theories on how to eat and act to not get sick. And I don't know what is true or not, but, of course, we know that produce is a big part of a healthy diet.
The good thing is that all this correlates with our agenda. We launched the goal of 500 grams a day, but how do we get this to happen? That’s the tricky part. Last year, we did a lot of research. We understand that we do a lot of things that have an effect here and now, but not a long-term effect. When we do all these campaigns and everything, we drive sales, of course, and we drive consumption, but it's not getting the daily intake increasing.
Q: So, a campaign could create excitement around produce to stimulate more purchases in a category or across the department, or perhaps a campaign may jolt sales in one area at the expense of another. Is prolonged increase consumption at issue?
A: We say that we have a consumption of approximately 365 grams per person a day in Sweden, and it's been on that level for a long time. And it's not that we haven't done anything, or that our competitors haven’t done anything. So, last year, we were doing a lot of digging into why, and what do we need to do.
We’ve concluded that what we're doing is good, and to keep on doing that, but we need to find other ways as well, and really find the triggers to changing people's behaviors, because that's what it's all about. It’s about not just saying this is good for you so you should eat it, because people know it's good for you. We must find the other mechanisms to get people to do a behavioral change that's going to last over a long period of time.
Q: Did you assess those mechanisms, and perhaps more challenging, ways to implement them that can make a difference?
A: The interesting part here is that all of 2021 has been a year where we explored behavioral science, and this is not something new, it's just that it's not been connected that long to sales and marketing. When we do sales and marketing, we always go to the PR firms or a specialist in marketing, and that's good, we need those institutions as well. But this time we turn more to science and psychology, trying to understand what we need to do to make it easier for our consumers to make the right choice. And it's not merely by saying, this is good for you.
In fact, when we dug deeper into this, there actually is a big part of the customer base who gets a bit annoyed when we tell them what to do, what not to do, and this is good for you, and this is bad for you. And they get kind of put off by that and say, okay, if you're going to shove that down my face, I’m going somewhere else for shopping.
Q: There’s some irony there as well, since ICA Sweden’s new health strategy integrally relates to the health benefits of produce...
A: I think that's also the hold on the society now with all the social media and everything. You can have your own truth, so everything can be so channeled to me, and my way of receiving things that the broad marketing perspective is more difficult. There are a lot of people who have very sharp preferences, and that's possible now with the media landscape, and with the algorithm on the phone and so on.
Q: Here you’re talking about customized messaging in a complex new world. Sounds like produce industry executives could benefit from a degree in behavioral economics and behavioral science and marketing?
A: We need to find different ways to reach different kinds of consumers. We’re really working on how to do that now. If you look to behavioral science, a lot of the techniques are there. It’s been applied in other industries. I think insurance has been using this behavioral research for quite some time, because insurance is not the most fun thing to dig into as a consumer.
They have to make it easier for me as a consumer to make the right decisions and behave in the right way. There is a lot of behavioral science connected to sales and marketing. So, we're now just scouting this and finding out, okay, which of these different techniques are we going to adapt.
Q: Can you outline some of the techniques… you referenced insurance… you’re looking to apply those mechanisms in how you sell produce to influence eating behaviors?
A: Insurance is just an example of an industry that's been using these kinds of techniques for a long time, and it's not been so common in our part of sales. We've been more focused on here and now, and also using arguments very much connected to health, and this is good for you because of this, and this is bad...
One of the behavioral science techniques is making the product accessible in the stores. So instead of having the unhealthy snacks at the cash register, put carrots, put berries...you're changing the decision environment for the customer, making it easier for the customer to make the right choice.
By adding berries or apples in the checkout lane, if you have a hungry kid there, you'd maybe, God forbid, give them Snickers, but if you have an apple there as well, it's easier for me to make that better choice of taking the apple.
Q: Not necessarily if your hungry kid sees the Snickers next to the apple... but I see your point. This seems like a merchandising strategy that involves buy-in at a higher level, as part of the ICA health strategy... dolling out shelf space, and the competition for prime real estate from different departments? Do you have all the stores on board?
A: We have to make all parties understand that this is the way to go, and then do some tests and confirm that it's actually helping boost sales. But the thing about behavioral science is that it doesn't pay unless you stick with it – you need to keep going to establish a long-term change... I probably have the same breakfast routine during weekdays for the past five years, and it's not something I’m changing very easily because it takes time to change behavior.
Q: This reminds me of a seminal study presented at one of our earlier trade shows on the science of taste, and the need for repetition to impact eating habits, which can be engrained at an early age...
A: It's the same every year… by January, everybody's going to start exercising; New Year, new challenges, everybody buys a gym card. But if you don't continue, you don't change your behavior, you just do it for a month, and then you're done with it.
It takes time to change behavior, and this is what we've come to terms with, and that's why we need to find what techniques are we going to be using at ICA, and then, also sticking with them, and doing this within the whole of the company, because we are a big company.
And we need more than just my part, which is the produce part. I need my marketing department to understand, I also need the stores, you know, we have our free shop owners, they do what they want, that's the business model. I need to get them to also understand that this is something we need to work with as well.
And I need the industry to start realizing as well that, okay, we need to do campaigns here and now to drive sales, and to have consumption always top of mind. But if we take all of that away, we still need to change the behavior of the consumer so that the consumer has the consumption of 500 grams a day, even without us having promos the whole time.
Q: How is the reception so far from your independent stores? Where are you in this process of this metamorphosis you describe? Are you testing concepts, do you have other examples of these strategies you’re putting in place?
A: Well, we are in the midst of setting some examples up, but for now, we're keeping that to ourselves. What I want to put out there is this is something that we want to challenge our competitors and the whole industry to really look into because we cannot, as ICA, do this alone– we have consumers shopping everywhere, of course. We have loyal consumers, but we also have consumers who shop everywhere.
This is not a one-man show, so that's why I want to address this to the industry. I want everybody to understand that if we're serious about people's health and helping people to go to 500 grams a day, the whole industry needs to adopt some new strategies. And that's up to every company to do what they feel is the best, but the answer is not only in campaigns here and now. It’s actually in changing behaviors, it's called nudging, you probably heard it, it won the Nobel Prize for Economics a couple of years ago. And this is what it's all about. This is nudging people to change their behavior, to make choices that take them towards 500 grams a day. We need to help the customers on this path...
Q: You've been making a point that many consumers don't want to be told this is good for you, so are you looking to what things need to be emphasized, which is taste and convenience...You mentioned earlier a jump in sales because of sustainability attributes, but notably used the word slight...
A: There are different customer groups. Some still want to understand what's good for you and not, and need help, but that cannot be the only message, and that's kind of been a message I feel our industry has been focused on. It’s tasty and nutritious, that's been the main headlines for promoting fruit and veg.
We just need to be a bit careful on where we say it and how we say it, because we know that we scare some people by doing this. But at the same time, can we do it in a manner where we also talk about health in another context?
I can tell you one concrete example that we did from the beginning of the year. We have a very old school thing, one of these calendars you put on the wall, where you have a picture, and then you have the days of the month, and we still do that at ICA because we have customers who really like it. It’s a good way to give it away at the cash register by the year end, so the consumer takes it home, and then they put it on the wall.
We have a very good marketing department they take beautiful photos. And this year, it's all about fruit and veg, otherwise, it can be a different thing. But this year, it's about 500 grams a day.
So, every month you have a new product, and there are great pictures, and some recipes, but it’s also very easy. For instance, five things you can do with carrots that maybe you wouldn't think about. And then connected to this, there is also possibility for the shops to create recipes with the same look and feel, and so, it's a theme throughout the month, and for this photo shoot, because a lot of customers don't understand how much 500 grams a day is, we did pictures of hands holding 500 grams.
Q: Very clever to have a visual on what 500 grams translates to in servings. I suppose having the calendar on the wall subtly reinforces this messaging day after day...
A: So, it's all seasons – we did one for spring, one for summer, one for autumn, and one for winter. It’s very easy, you know by seeing the hands holding the produce, this is how much you need to eat. This is also nudging. We don't shove it down people's throat, we just show them, okay, it's not as hard. So, when they go to the shops, and they see hashtag 500 grams a day, we start to get them thinking, okay, they can do that. They can easily collect the amount that's shown in the hands, instead of saying have this carrot filled with vitamin A and B and C. Okay, that's good, but it doesn't really help the customers in choosing the carrot...
Q: Are you able to pivot off your fun, innovative marketing to kids that spiked sales during Halloween, or is this approach limited to short-term gains?
A: We want to bring a new take on this – because I still think that the kids' marketing is a really, really great thing, but the Halloween campaign was kind of standing alone, it wasn't part of a bigger purpose. Also, during COVID times, you were not allowed to go to the stores, and the campaign’s success all depends on making a good explanation in the stores...
A: So, we paused it, and said, let's see how we can maybe bring it back in a new context, because it ran over a couple of years as well, we need a break. But still, educating kids is one thing, because they want to be educated, and also kids love to get to know more about food. We know that they influence the parents too, so that's a good thing.
But we also have to work in behavioral techniques...If you give kids 10 ways of using an apple, it's more likely that they're going to start eating apples than if you just had them eating it straight up.
Q: This crosses paths with Brighter Bites, an innovative program in the U.S. we’ve covered extensively that targets kids, and takes a scientific, behavioral approach to increase consumption long term.
It did plate waste studies, measuring what kids eat and throw away at school lunch, and the results were enlightening. For instance, where if you hand kids a whole apple, they toss it in the garbage, but they will gladly eat sliced apples. What about the way the products are being developed… are you working with suppliers on that or changing the types of products that you're offering?
A: Frankly, these two COVID years have been about getting produce to the stores because of so many difficulties, and we have some suppliers that suffered from a lot of people being sick and so on. But this is one of the things we’re going to look into as we start to travel again and see the industry, and what’s happening from a product development perspective, that's what I’m looking forward to so much, to be able to see everybody in London.
I'm sure there are a lot of companies that have ideas that they now want to present to us in the industry, and I'm really looking forward to being able to network and see those things.
Q: Since increasing produce consumption is part of a broader health initiative across ICA, are you doing integrated programs with other departments?
A: We have a central organization, and then the stores basically organize themselves however they want. And we have a lot of discussions, of course, because we want this to be alive in all the different departments. The reduction of sugar is more in other foods, the processed side. So, we have good dialogue, and this whole behavioral science strategy is probably something we can use in the rest of the company as well. But we're starting it off by looking at how can we influence the customers.
Q: If your behavioral science approach is effective, its implications could ripple beyond the produce department...
A: Yes, it may...if you take the example of having produce at the cash register that scoops something else out. So, we must have a good whole view of the department and the store, and also prove that this is good for the profit of the stores, because, of course, this needs to be profitable as well. So, it's a goal for the health of the people but, of course, it needs to pay as well, but that's in every business.
Q: Do you have a system in place where you can track and measure results and be able to show what's effective, what's working and what's not working?
A: When we do experiments in the shops, it's a lot easier because then you only do it for the isolated shop, but we are currently looking into the aggregated data on how to measure it, because we are a big company, and we are close to being at 1,300 individual stores.
There’s not an easy way to track, because, of course, if you had the barcodes on everything that would be fine, but we have loose produce and that makes it a bit difficult. So, we're still working on that part, but we have a good view on where we stand as a whole and especially at the store level to monitor in a better way. We are in the process now of doing some case studies, and I might have more to share in London...
I think it’s a good topic, just getting the discussion going in the industry and have our suppliers understand that we need to do things differently, especially from a marketing point of view. We want to do marketing campaigns that give sales here and now, but also have a part of the budget going into things that you maybe don't see the results in the same month because it takes time to change behavior.
But that's the only way I think we're going to go to 500 grams a day. Of course, there is always a small population that just make up their mind and change, but for a whole lot of people, it's going to take time. Otherwise, we would have seen the shift, because people know it's good for you, and they know it's good for the planet.
So why don't we just eat more produce then? Well, there is something that makes it difficult, and we need to find those barriers and nudge people in the right direction to help them make the right choices, making it easier for them, and not just by doing it with price or saying that is good for you. So, finding the mechanisms, and there are a lot of different mechanisms. As an industry, we need to work from different angles...
We have dieticians in the stores and that’s working, but again, that's appealing to the people who want to eat nutritiously.
One of the easiest examples is just where you place produce. We know that if you put broccoli or cauliflower right by the fresh pasta or by the fresh meat ,that's one of the mechanisms that really increases consumption of vegetables. But this involves working with different departments, and then to get it to stick, and always be in the same place, so customers go there and see it.
We need to have patience in this, because just putting it there once, well, it needs to be there until the behavior has changed for consumers. We need to adapt a more patient strategy all over the industry as well, keep it going, and not just do it as the flavor of the month.
Q: Right, cross merchandising and integrating produce throughout the store...
A: Yes, I don't know how much it’s done in the U.S., but it's not very common in Europe. But it's one of the behavioral techniques that, when you read is often used as an example of how to get people to eat more produce. We know that it's effective, and we know that it’s not being done to the full extent.
Q: Right. Sometimes it’s due to bureaucracy or corporate structure where it could be challenging.
A: That’s definitely the case, but then we need to come with evidence, showing that it's also profitable, which I'm positive that it is. But it's not only that, the industry is aware, and everybody understands that we need to make this shift, if not just for the health, also for the planet, because we hear reports every day of emissions, and CO2 and everything connected to different things that we need to change in the way we're eating. But that's a different discussion...
It's a lot about making produce easily accessible to make the better choice. I read a study that showed when people go to a workshop, and there's cookies on the table, they eat the cookies, but if there's cookies and fruit, they’ll eat the fruit; but if you put the fruit bowl outside of the room, people will not just go out to have the fruit. That small step is putting a barrier between you and the fruit, making you eat cookies again. If you would take the cookies away and just have the fruit, people would just eat fruit. It's about nudging people in the right direction and changing the environment of behavior.
We don't have all the answers now, and it's going to be trial-and-error, of course, but we've done a good deal of research trying to choose a path, and now we just have to go with it.
Q: Are you connected with the ICA and Min Doktor pilot project for better health?
A: That’s also in the health strategy of the ICA group, as we talked about earlier, we don’t just have stores, we have pharmacies, and varied business areas so we can work on health.
And that's really the fun part, because I feel we’re just in the beginning of this, and that's very exciting to see then, okay, how can we connect pharmacies in a year or two to work this way to help people making the choices of fruit and veg without pointing fingers at them?
Some people do still want that direction, so we have to take care of all our customers. But it's just a different way of thinking about it, and opening your mind to new ways of working, and again, being patient. That's maybe the key word here, that you need to try new things, and it takes time to change your behavior.
You can just go to yourself and see how many times you've maybe tried to quit smoking or tried losing weight or tried starting to exercise and why have you failed, and then the times that you succeeded and why. I do that sometimes myself, when I’m in my home office, I put on my workout gear when I get out of bed, because when it's on, I change my decision structure, well you don't have a decision anymore, the decision is already made for you, now go out and do it.
Q: Sometimes it’s easier to take small steps... In turning to behavioral science and nudging techniques, what’s the best approach to keep kids eating more produce?
A: I think start easy, start with the low hanging fruit. Trying to get people to have one extra carrot a day or an apple a day is great.
Of course, we should continue exploring the wonderful world of produce and all the varieties. There are different kinds of people, but for the most part, it’s about adding that extra 140 grams per day, which is not that much...So, not making it too difficult for people.
It’s like my workout, if I make it easy for myself, I'll work out. If I make it easier for consumers by showing them the hands with the amount, it's a very smart way of just demonstrating it's not that hard; you don't have to work that hard, it's just this amount. But then you have people like me who eat a lot of fruit and veg that need to be inspired on what to do, and how to do it, and 10 different ways of using a pointed cabbage.
Q: Right, two frames of thought, one is to keep it simple, sticking with the tried-and-true, and just giving people some easy ways to increase their consumption, and then this other concept, out-of-the-box creative, new, unusual varieties...maybe playing to different audiences...
A: Maybe different audiences, but then I understand there is a need for novelties, for companies to have new varieties and so on. We should continue to do that for many different reasons, because of crop resistance, to find hardy and better growing varieties and so on. But sometimes I think focusing more on the easy and what people already like and trying them to get to eat more of that.
But we know all about category management. You also need the new varieties to lift the whole category. That’s why I also say, we need to do what we've done successfully up till now. We need to continue that, we shouldn't stop – we just need to realize that there is also another dimension that we need to capture, and together try to find out how we do that. That would summarize it.
When I talk to producers, it’s a new type of discussion on the short term versus long term, how do we work on the two dimensions together.
That's really, the challenge in this. You have to have the promos here and now, which costs money for everyone, and then you need to also have the marketing money to drive the behavioral change, which maybe is hard to show exactly what you've done, but it's going to drive the change.
Q: Often people want quantifiable results right away. They're looking at the numbers...
A: Of course. That's how it works, but that's why we need to find a way to do both, because the short term will raise the money for the long term, hopefully.
Q: So, as we conclude, what are some of the goals or things that you're hoping to achieve when you come to the London Produce Show, maybe just some thoughts to inspire attendees?
A: I would say just to bring a new dimension again to the discussion on how to increase consumption, because that's always been my goal to find new ways to getting people to eat more fruit and veg, because I think that's a key to a lot of things in this world.
We are the future. It’s the best industry to work in because we have this goal now that we need to do together. So having discussions that go beyond promos here and now and trying to get people to engage in understanding what nudging and behavioral science can do for us as an industry. That would be my take on this, and I’m still learning new ways of working because we're facing challenges as well with the weather situation everywhere and with prices going up on raw materials, transportation costs...
We’re in the situation now where we see some heavy price increases in some products, so we really need people to increase consumption to 500 grams a day, that really needs to be the standard. Otherwise, it's going to be tough.
Q: Throughout the years in our publications and at our trade shows, we always bring in the latest research, and there's many topics that have channeled behavioral change...
A: Yes, this is not something new, but I think we need to really embrace it this time if I should say it like that. In the the past it's been fragments here and there, and now we're trying to take it on full force, seeing the bigger picture and really hold on to it this time.
Q: Yes, as you’ve pointed out, it can't just be a one-time thing. It takes time for people to change their taste buds, as studies show especially children need to keep trying that same vegetable over and over again, I think it’s a repetition of at least 10 times...
A: It goes for my husband as well. I can say for myself, it took me half a year to learn to appreciate sweet potato. I know that's a base food in the US. I just set my mind to it, even though I found the texture too mushy, because it's so nutritious and full of these vitamins and the colors and the antioxidants and everything, and now I love it, I have sweet potato almost every day. I conditioned myself to eat it. So, there you go.
And it’s in the very early years where the taste buds are really developing, and everybody who has had small kids knows that this is also the most difficult time. I think focusing on children is very important. I saw a disturbing study on how kids' health has deteriorated during COVID. My heart just goes out to the kids, but it's also the future consumer. If we have a small time period where we can get kids to like produce, we have to seize that moment as an industry.
As a big company, we have an opportunity to help families with kids to eat healthier and to make a difference. And I think as a society, we all need to just do it. It's a big cost for society, all the diseases related to not being healthy.
As the biggest supermarket in Sweden, we have a possibility to impact people's lives, not just at the stores, but since we have pharmacies, and we have the bank, and we have all these different areas working together, we think we can make a change, a positive impact on people's lives.
Q: Is it fair to have an overriding statement about the importance that the produce department and produce plays in this strategy?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of the three goals of our health strategy. I think we have a very leading role in ICA's health strategies too, because that’s the science. One of the biggest changes that you can do for your health is by eating healthy and, of course, fruit and veg is a big part of that. It has a very big impact. So, we need to find a way with our great produce departments to get consumers in the habit of eating 500 grams a day, and that's where the challenge is that we need to take to the industry.
The issue of increasing produce consumption is one that has challenged the produce industry and public health authorities for a long time. Retailers also want to be seen as advocates for something that is so obviously beneficial for the health of their customers. But — and here is a dirty little secret — for many retailers, which after all sell everything, promoting produce is just PR.
ICA, on the other hand, is an exceptional company; it is genuinely dedicated to this cause.
At many stores, if cash-register displays of candy are replaced by fruits and vegetables, that will not likely increase the store’s overall profitability. If consumers trade away from meat and buy more lettuce, again, that is not likely to increase a store’s profitability. The truth is, in America at least, stores profit most if customers scratch their itch to do something healthful by buying vitamins in a bottle – one of the most profitable items in a grocery store!
See, the health issue around produce is not just that they have unique phytonutrients, so one should eat them; it is that you should fill up on them so you will eat less of other items. Most stores earn higher profits on, say, deli meat and cheese, than they do fruits and vegetables, so if consumption patterns actually change, growers of produce may do well, but supermarkets might make a little less!
And yet, ICA, sees its role differently and is willing to work on the assumption that doing all it can to encourage a healthy consumer base is its moral obligation and, all things considered, its store owners and ICA itself will do fine with a shopper base of healthy consumers.
We are very lucky in the industry to have a produce executive like Maria Wieloch and a retailer like ICA. Changing what people eat is simply a task incompatible with the necessity of increasing this week’s earnings, and precious few retailers are willing to take a long term perspective.
Please come and listen to Maria. What she is talking about is the road for prosperity for the fruit and vegetable industry, and it is the kind of work that retailers who care about their customers and care about the world simply must undertake.
We thank Maria Wieloch and ICA for being willing to take on this important task and for being willing to come to London and share with the industry the task undertaken.
Make sure to register for the London Produce Show and Conference and listen to Maria by signing up here
If you would like to promote your company, your products, and the services you sell, you can still get a stand right here.
And, of course, you can be an industry leader and help us underwrite the cost of the event by signing up to do a sponsorship right here.
We look forward to seeing you in London!