How to drive forward the fresh produce industry was the key topic up for debate during The London Produce Show and Conference 2018 (LPS18). The role of consumption, market evolution and sustainability all featured highly on the agenda during the Thought-Leader Breakfast panel of nine international produce trade buyers and one London-based NHS doctor, who jointly addressed the positive growth potential for the industry going forward.
Taking place in the Ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, the lively and thought-provoking panel discussion was chaired by world-renowned fresh produce writer and analyst, the Perishable Pundit, Jim Prevor.
To spark off the conversation, Prevor pointed out how future produce industry growth must come partly from raising consumption by spreading the health message about the benefits of eating more fruit and veg.
Maria Wieloch, senior category manager for fruit, vegetables and flowers at ICA Sweden, couldn’t agree more. Having just scooped the 2018 International Award for Marketing Fresh Produce to Children, presented by Produce Business UK and The London Produce Show and Conference, Wieloch stressed the importance of developing consumption campaigns that start much earlier in life.
“Consumption is decreasing among kids, which is really worrying for us,” she stated. “We have to figure out the key. Research shows that the taste for fruit and vegetables is acquired at a very early stage – even by the age of 2. If you don’t get in there by then, it will be difficult to get consumption up afterwards.”
As well as starting early, Wieloch also emphasised the need for consumption initiatives to be rolled out at a society-level considering, in Sweden, the low levels of consumption among low-income or lower-education families, and even across the male population in comparison to females.
“In Sweden, there is a small trial where doctors are prescribing certain foods to people in these [low-income] areas to improve their health […] and to see if that can change how consumption increases,” she explained.
This is precisely what fellow panelist and Show Ambassador Dr. Rupy Aujla is already doing for his NHS patients in London. Passionate about getting people to eat more produce and bringing to light the science behind ingredients, Dr. Aujla founded blog The Doctor’s Kitchen to share his inspirational recipes. He is now on a mission to encourage more UK doctors to practice the principles of culinary medicine at a nationwide level.
“When you look at the research, the food we consume has a massive impact on health outcomes,” he explained. “It’s more powerful than any pill I can prescribe. When more people realise that we can drive up consumption for the greater good.”
However, Dr. Aujla was quick to point out that nutrition is not covered in depth on the curriculum at medical school for UK doctors. As such, through his role as a nutritional advisor at The Royal College of GPs, Dr. Aujla is helping to teach doctors the foundations of nutrition, as well as how to cook in order for them to elevate the conversation with their patients.
In turn, he believes doctors, registered dieticians and nutritionists and the UK government have more of a role to play in driving fresh produce consumption, and supporting the produce industry.
“You [produce industry operators] can’t do everything yourself,” he stated. “You need to be careful about the claims you put on food. Try to associate yourselves with those that know what they’re talking about and educate responsibly.”
Rich Dachman, vice president of produce at US-based Sysco Corporation, the largest foodservice distribution company in the world, went on to exemplify the credible success of the Brighter Bites campaign across six major metropolitan areas in the United States that targets the eating habits of underprivileged children at a very early age.
“The organisation provides 30 pounds of produce per week per family, along with a complete educational system of how to eat and what to eat with recipes,” Dachman commented. “It’s the first programme I’ve seen that goes the last mile; most programmes are conceptual. It’s really exciting.”
Dachman added that the programme over the past three to four years has been tracked medically to understand the impact of produce consumption on the children’s health via gut biome testing, as well as their behaviour and their school grades.
“Farmers are our future pharmacists,” stated Dachman. “If human beings eat right, you end up with a much better end product. We have to do it for our kids.”
From there, the conversation shifted to the evolving global produce market and the impact of new competitors, such as food apps, plus the response both from supermarket stores and the foodservice industry.
Jonathan Olins, managing director of Poupart Imports, highlighted the strong growth of the UK’s wholesale market, which has provided a stable, profitable and alternative sales channel for his business, which focuses on the non-supermarket sector.
“When we set up Poupart Imports 20 years ago, we travelled the world to find new producers to support us,” he said. “They didn’t think there was life outside of the major [UK] supermarkets. We had to prove to them that we could add value, […] get a premium. The business has grown. We’ve proved it can be done.”
Food tech, meanwhile, has emerged as a new market force for Paul James Morgan, category manager for fruit and vegetables at Spinneys Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“One of the things we’re battling with at Spinneys is the blurring of the lines between food delivery apps, food-to-go shopping in supermarkets and scratch cooking,” he explained.
“All customers are shopping across all channels, and our competitors are absolutely the likes of [online food ordering companies] Deliveroo and Uber Eats because of their accessibility, speed and convenience. In the UAE, the average price of food is more expensive, so the gap between food delivery and shopping in supermarkets is closing.”
To convince shoppers to continue making journeys to the supermarket, Morgan said Spinneys is looking at ways to remain on the front foot by addressing consumer trends, such as health and transparency.
When it comes to customer loyalty, fellow retail executive Curt Epperson, Business Development Director of Produce and Flora at Publix Super Markets in the southeastern United States, commented that quality and service are the foundations for the business.
“Food should really taste great,” Epperson pointed out. “Publix has seven-day deliveries to the majority of our stores, which has given us the opportunity to offer the freshest product available.
“We’ve worked hard to create longstanding relationships with suppliers. So when they’re harvesting, it’s our request to leave products on the vine, bush or plant a bit longer to give more flavour and nutrients.”
Publix also has a culture of knowledgeable and friendly staff, according to Epperson. For example, they help to promote new produce items and meal ideas via a programme called Aprons that offers healthy and convenient recipes, meal ideas and cooking demonstrations in some stores.
“Every week, we collect products from across the store to create a meal,” Epperson said. “We’re getting customers to try new products (like radicchio, Belgian endive, brussels sprouts). It gives our customers a new perspective on different products out there.”
Indeed, Brian Riordan (left in photo with Maria Wieloch), Managing Director of the LifeWorks Restaurant Group, says his company is having to respond to strong competition in both the UK and the USA from the many high-street retailers located in areas surrounding the corporate businesses in which LifeWorks operates restaurants.
“You have to complement your food programmes to keep people on site,” he said. “It’s about customisation; building up a meal from 20 different components. That’s what our consumers want. The traditional meal of ‘meat and two veg’ doesn’t exist anymore.”
Driven by the diversity of the working population, consumers are demanding more vegetarian options in particular, according to Riordan. “Five years ago vegetarianism or flexitarianism captured 5 per cent of our menus,” he said, “now we’re up to 35 percent.”
Next, the panel turned its attention to the future of the international produce industry from a sustainability perspective, with Peter Gohl, general manager of perishables at Spar Group in South Africa, indicating the stark reality of climate change.
“The paradigm of local procurement is possibly changing [because] climate change is real,” he warned. “The northeast subtropical region [in South Africa] is getting wetter and cooler, which is affecting the quality of certain crops.
“In the southwest – in the Cape, a traditional grape, stone fruit and citrus area – it’s getting hotter and drier. They’re experiencing the worst drought in 100 years […] The dynamics are changing.”
Theresa Huxley, Technical Manager at Sainsbury’s in the UK, agreed that water availability has a significant impact on the resilience of the produce supply chain and how a retailer’s operations work. Despite this, she had some positive thoughts to share.
“I’ve been involved with a number of projects such as the Sainsbury’s Concept Orchard at East Malling [NIAB EMR] where a lot of very early work was done on water scheduling,” she revealed. “I’m proud to say that those learnings and the insight from that work have been transferred to not only other fruit categories but vegetables and ornamentals within the UK, and, importantly, across the globe.”
Furthermore, Huxley explained that the concept orchard spurred research into the genetics of drought-tolerant rootstocks, and also stimulated a study into how novel irrigation techniques impact on pest and disease. Other lines of enquiry have included looking at suboptimal irrigation and how that positively affects the quality and the shelf-life of produce.
“The water issue is far bigger than Sainsbury’s and the UK,” she asserted. “All [produce industry] stakeholders have a responsibility to work together on this challenge. The vision must be that the insights, the technology and the best practices are shared globally.”
Alike retailers, sustainable supply is also top of mind for foodservice operators, such as contract caterer bartlett mitchell, explained the firm’s purchasing director Steve Fox.
“As a buyer, sustainability is very much at forefront of what I’m doing,” he noted. “In terms of bringing new products to market, one of my first questions would be how is it grown and what’s the impact from a sustainability point of view, before I even get to [asking] what the quality is like and what is the price.
“If it’s not going to be sustainable, I don’t want to start marketing it. Growers need to back up what they say in easily understandable terms that I can grasp as a buyer and that we can forward communicate to our customers.”
On the subject of making a better world, Huxley from Sainsbury’s also underlined the significant role that data will play going forward in terms of the learnings to be gleaned from that information to unlock insight-driven improvements in the supply chain.
Describing the shift from retrospective data to real-time data, Huxley indicated that the future lies with predictive data. “I think in the future, and it’s not far away, we’ll be using data to predict, which will allow growers and ourselves to make really good decisions based on data,” she claimed.
Specifically speaking, Huxley said she is working on one Innovate UK project researching dynamic controlled-atmosphere storage for apples.
“The data is beginning to become clearer, and by extrapolating the data, we will get to a position where we can plan the correct time to release that product to stores to give great customer satisfaction,” she revealed. “We’re on the verge of an exciting step change.”
With so many challenges facing the produce industry, Prevor drew the discussion to a close by asking Wieloch of ICA Sweden for her thoughts on the path ahead.
“This is the most exciting industry to be in because it’s the only industry that has the biggest growth potential,” she replied.
“We all know we have to eat less meat and dairy both for our health and the health of the planet. Fresh produce is the healthy and most environmentally friendly alternative.
“Also, we’re only consuming 350g [of produce per person] a day of our [recommended] 500g, so there is another 150g to grab in sales. From a world and human point of view, this is the industry that has everything going for it.”
Indeed, in summing up the many topics debated during the morning session, Prevor concluded that the produce industry’s response to this challenge should be to find new and exciting ways to feed the world.