In response to the ongoing rise in demand for berries, Hoogstraten , a well-known cooperative of fresh produce growers in Belgium and the Netherlands, has launched a trade campaign in the UK to raise awareness among buyers of its “fresh, healthy and tasty” strawberries , which can be sold and arrive in the UK on the same day with full traceability and in recycled packaging. PBUK investigates.
Hoogstraten markets over 30,000 tonnes of strawberries throughout 365 days of the year. Approximately two thirds are exported, and one third is sold locally in Belgium. The UK has long been an important market for Hoogstraten; ranking for more than 30 years as a key export destination for the cooperative’s strawberries. During the last decade, meanwhile, the UK has become an even more strategic market; taking a larger share of the increase in overall strawberry exports from Belgium to the world.
In 2020, some 9,438 tonnes of Belgian strawberries were exported to the UK, according to Hoogstraten. As such, the UK accounted for more than 20 per cent of all Belgian strawberry exports in terms of both volume and sales. This is almost double the figure recorded just 10 years ago, when only 13 per cent of Belgian strawberry exports were sent to the UK.
“Clearly, this is part of the overall trend we are seeing within the berry category, and reinforces the importance of the UK market to the global fresh produce sector,” Synnøve Johansson, Business Development Manager at Hoogstraten, tells PBUK. Although domestic UK strawberry supply is increasing at the same time, Johansson says the growth is not enough to satisfy the rise in year-round consumer demand, and this is where Hoogstraten can play an important supply role. With that in mind, Hoogstraten expects the UK will remain one of its biggest export markets, with the potential to continue expanding further.
“Brexit and Covid have reconfirmed the increasing importance of the UK, alongside our ability to supply this market by working closely with our trusted partners and suppliers,” Johansson explains.
“Strawberries and other berries have provided the everyday healthy luxury for consumers stuck at home during the pandemic, and so while Covid has brought many challenges, especially in the earlier stages, demand has remained stable throughout the last eighteen months, and our operations have never stopped,” she continues. “Every effort has been made to ensure that our products have continued to be harvested and distributed throughout the crisis with the help of our partners who work with us.”
Hoogstraten expects the berry category will continue growing, particularly as the convenience of the category becomes clearer to more consumers. “Our main aim now is to increase brand awareness and brand recognition within this trend, and for Hoogstraten strawberries to be recognised for the tasty treats they are,” Johansson reveals.
To that end, Hoogstraten has partnered with marketing agency RED Communications to increase its brand awareness in the UK. The goal is to reinforce the message surrounding the availability of fresh, healthy, and tasty Hoogstraten strawberries during the September to April window when British strawberries are mostly unavailable.
The trade-focused PR and advertising campaign will involve trade advertising, exclusive articles in key industry publications and targeted monthly newsletters to the UK fresh produce sector, including wholesalers, retail buyers and importers. The focus will be on the sustainability of Hoogstraten and its strawberry production.
“We know from experience that when a brand delivers on its promise of taste and quality, the consumer will always come back,” points out Johansson.
For UK buyers, Hoogstraten believes there are various advantages to sourcing its strawberries; either to complement UK supply or during the UK off-season. One of the greatest benefits is Belgium’s proximity to the UK. Located just north of the city of Antwerp, Hoogstraten is approximately 400 kilometres by road from London and New Covent Garden Market.
“Hoogstraten is the closest supplier option available by road transport over any other [overseas] source,” Johansson claims. “What is sold in the auction in the morning will arrive in the UK on the same day or within 48 hours from being picked.
“Our proximity to the UK clearly enables us to supply the freshest possible berries not only to supplement local supply during the British season, but also once the local season is over.”
Furthermore, Johansson says Hoogstraten has continued to supply the UK quickly and efficiently following Brexit and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The continuity of its supply has been enabled thanks to Hoogstraten’s trusted labour force, in addition to its close partnerships with its export partners, and decades of experience of supplying the UK.
Rigorous Quality Inspections
Taste and quality are other key priorities and advantage over competing suppliers, according to Johansson. This is because Hoogstraten’s chosen strawberry varieties are selected for their “excellent taste”, rather than only focusing on a long shelf-life. The cooperative uses different production methods for its strawberries, including open air, plastic tunnels, heated greenhouses and assimilation lighting in the winter.
Even so, the fruit is picked and selected carefully to guarantee consistently great flavour and high quality as its points of difference. “Our strict grading helps to ensure uniformity in our products,” Johansson reveals. “Our growers’ strawberries are strictly graded when picked, and later they pass through not just one, but two quality control inspections before being sold on the market.”
In addition to the dual inspections, Hoogstraten’s export partners also inspect the fruit prior to buying and loading, which gives the receiver in the UK additional security in terms of fruit quality. The cooperative also has different grading options for strawberries, which enables it to offer different products for the various UK market channels, depending on their requirements.
On the upper end of the scale, Hoogstraten’s finest quality strawberries are classified in to four categories: GOLD, Double Extra (EE), Extra (E) and Extra Direct (ED). This classification is based on the strawberries’ external characteristics. Fruit that does not meet the extra quality standards are categorised as grade 1, 2 or 3.
Packaging & Traceability
Keeping up with the latest UK consumer demands, such as environmental sustainability, is another focus of investment and development at Hoogstraten. Last year, the cooperative launched a strawberry carton to reduce its use of plastic punnets and thereby reduce its plastic waste. The punnets are made from more than 90 per cent recycled paper, which is also biodegradable.
Going forward, these recycled and recyclable cartons will become more widespread across Hoogstraten’s offer as the cooperative increases the capacity of its punnet packing machine.
At the same time, Hoogstraten has enabled full traceability back to the individual grower who produced and packed its strawberries by including a unique QR code on each punnet of fruit.
The buyer or consumer can scan the code to see who is the exact grower and even make contact with them, Johansson notes. “The most exciting part of this technology is enabling the next steps towards a block chain, and guaranteeing full transparency and visibility throughout the supply chain,” she reveals.
Research into new varieties is another focus of differentiation for Hoogstraten. Although Elsanta remains the main strawberry variety that is produced by the cooperative and favoured by its customers, every year new varieties are trialled by the Proefcentrum Hoogstraten (the Hoogstraten Research Centre). The aim is to find the tastiest shiny red, smooth and juicy strawberries that growers can produce and supply to consumers all year-round.
These varieties are, depending on their growing and blooming cycle, sold as Evera (ever-bearers such as Verity) or Verano (June-bearers such as Malling Centenary).Elsanta (a red and tasty variety) dominates the range (accounting for 85 per cent of the offer), while other varieties, such as: Sonata, Sonsation, Limalexia and to a limited extent Murano, are on the rise as fully-fledged alternatives.
“We work closely with the Proefcentrum Hoogstraten where other strawberries are continuously evaluated under different cultivation systems, with these new varieties being tested on the growers’ land under the guidance of the Research Centre,” Johansson explains. “It remains crucial that any new varieties must first comply with our stringent quality requirements,” she concludes.