Prue Leith delves into the importance of Chilean produce supply to UK

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What do Chile, a French spy and a strawberry have in common? That was how Prue Leith CBE introduced a special interview with Charif Christian Carvajal, Marketing Director for Fruits from Chile, at the London Produce Show and Conference 2017 recently.

Kicking off the event’s Media Masterclass, Leith questioned Carvajal on a broad spectrum of topics that gave the 40-odd UK food journalists, bloggers and writers a comprehensive overview of Chile’s burgeoning fresh fruit industry and its evolution into a strategic, reliable supplier to the UK.

During the hour-long interview Leith grilled Carvajal on all things Chilean fruit; from the success of its blueberry business to how the industry markets its fruit to consumers, and Chile’s role in environmental and social responsibility.

What follows is a round-up of the key points of their discussion.

Skyrocketing blueberries

In response to Leith’s initial question, Carvajal shared a little-known anecdote about Chile having had a hand in the success of the UK’s strawberry industry – much to the audience’s surprise.

Carvajal recounted the tale of a French spy called Amédée-François Frézier, who visited the coast of Chile to sketch military defences before returning home in 1714 with a rootstock of Chilean strawberries. As the story goes, that rootstock was later crossed in Europe, eventually resulting in the modern-day strawberry, and giving the UK strawberry a Chilean origin.

“UK strawberries have long been sweet,” noted Carvajal, “but originally they were smaller in size. The Chilean strawberry had a quality that others lacked – its size. So all modern strawberries descend from that Chilean cross.”

Continuing on the subject of berries, Leith probed Carvajal about Chilean blueberries and learned that they have become the South American nation’s biggest export item.

“Today Chile exports around 2.5m tonnes of fresh fruit to the world in total,” Carvajal stated. “We are the largest exporter of fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, and the top exporter in the world of blueberries and table grapes. Every single day 82m consumers worldwide enjoy a piece of Chilean fresh fruit.”

Carvajal went on to explain how Chile is also the top exporter in the world of plums, dried apples, trout, Pacific salmon and mussels; and the second-largest supplier globally of avocados, cherries, walnuts, hazelnuts, prunes, frozen raspberries and Atlantic salmon.

He also noted that Chilean wines are internationally renowned while other products, such as extra virgin olive oil, mineral water, Pisco and dried fruit, contribute to the wide diversity of Chile’s exports.

Keen to learn more about Chile’s involvement in the UK berry market, Leith asked Carvajal by how much export volume has grown on the back of the “enormous rise” in berry consumption in the UK.

“Most of the blueberries you see [on the UK market] during the November to January period are from Chile,” he answered. “Chile started exporting blueberries to the UK no more than 10 years ago. We’ve grown exponentially. Now Chile exports 100,000 tonnes of blueberries to the UK every year. We have seen a huge rise in berry consumption here.”

As one of the fastest-growing fruit categories, Leith went on to question Carvajal about the development of the berry market in the UK.

“When we started the UK berry market had a penetration level of just 1%,” he said. “Now it’s 22-23%. The growth has been significant and we hope it will continue.”

Nonetheless, Carvajal pointed out that there will be ongoing challenges and opportunities for suppliers like Chile since the UK market is always changing.

“The distribution channels are evolving. Players like AmazonFresh and the [retail] discounters are changing the market every day, so we have to adapt and change with that,” he noted.

In terms of blueberries, Carvajal explained that has prompted a reconversion of the older varieties that were planted in Chile.

“A lot of the varieties that we planted in Chile came from the US,” he said. “The newer varieties, meanwhile, have four basic characteristics: they travel well, they produce large sizes, the fruit is a lot more crunchy and it’s less acidic.”

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Educating consumers

The discussion then moved onto the topic of marketing. Leith – herself a celebrity chef, author, food campaigner and advocate for children’s healthy eating – was interested to learn about how Chile communicates with the end consumer.

Rather than simply exporting its fruit, Carvajal was quick to point out that Chile has long sought to stimulate consumption in its destination markets through targeted marketing.

“We do a lot of promotional programmes,” he said. “It’s all about education, education, education. Five years ago we promoted blueberries as a superfood with the words “antioxidant blueberries”, and having completed many promotional campaigns for blueberries and other fruits, we’re convinced there’s a major opportunity to position fruit as a convenient and healthy snack.”

Nodding in agreement, Leith asked Carvajal how Chile plans to penetrate the snack market, leading him to announce that Fruits from Chile is on the verge of launching a pilot promotional campaign for citrus this summer. (The full story will be published shortly on PBUK.)

“This year for the very first time in the UK, Citrus from Chile will be undertaking a pilot campaign aimed directly at consumers to increase the consumption of our easy peelers,” he revealed. “We will target the children’s segment by positioning the fruit as a great snack to eat during sports because of the fruit’s high Vitamin C and water content.”

Last year Fruits from Chile also worked very closely with the Children’s Food Trust to promote Chilean blueberries. “We developed new recipes and ideas on how to consume fruit through the use of videos etc. to show [consumers] how to make fruit more entertaining,” Carvajal said.

Recipe development is a key marketing tool for Fruits from Chile, with Carvajal adding that simplicity is fundamental to their success.

Fruits from Chile, he explained, focuses on offering simple and easy recipes with a handful of ingredients that take just five to 10 minutes to prepare. “It should be something fun and simple to make, that’s easy for parents,” he noted.

Taking responsibility

To conclude the Q&A session, Carvajal spoke on the topic of environmental, corporate and social responsibility, following a leading question from Leith about the shelf-life of Chilean blueberries.

Carvajal explained that the fruit is picked 20-25 days before they appear on UK supermarket shelves, arriving by sea freight.

“In actual fact it’s not a big carbon footprint [shipping blueberries from Chile to the UK,” claimed Carvajal. “We did a study into our carbon footprint; comparing the journey of an apple from an English orchard to a supermarket, with apples arriving in the UK from Chile and New Zealand. In actual fact, Chile’s carbon footprint was lower because we need fewer inputs.”

This analysis forms part of a wider carbon footprint study undertaken via the ChileGAP programme, according to Carvajal. Its objective was to highlight areas in which Chile’s fruit industry can take specific action to help reduce the emissions within its production, and thereby reduce the sector’s total carbon output.

Chile has also recently entered into a strategic alliance (or Memorandum of Understanding) with Carbon Zero of New Zealand to further reduce emissions in its fruit export industry.

Leith was then eager for the audience to learn more about Chile’s other sustainability efforts, and its responsibility as a major grower-exporter. Carvajal used the example of efforts to safeguard employment in the agriculture industry, which is dependent on around 450,000 workers.

“The labour market has become more and more competitive in Chile. We’re a very big country in terms of copper exports so the mining industry needs workers too. In the north of Chile, temporary or regional workers can choose which sector to work in and demand higher wages. So, the agriculture industry is awarding scholarships for not only six or seven months work, but the chance to learn skills they can use for the whole year.”

In addition, Carvajal explained how public and private sectors in Chile are continually helping growers with sustainability. One such example is the creation of the Sustainability Guide, which benchmarks sustainability protocols and agendas published by authorities and key retailers across the globe.

“This best practice guide has been created for our growers so they can easily see what they need to be a certified grower,” Carvajal added. “The checklist allows a grower to see what percentage of requirements they are undertaking. For instance, they may already be meeting 80% of a retailer’s requirements and just need 20% more.”

Although still a relatively young industry that was only created in the 1970s-80s, Chile now exports almost 85% of its fresh fruit production to more than 100 different destinations across the globe.

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