Nicknamed “plum candy” because they taste so sweet, prunes are enjoying something of a renaissance in the UK as consumers, chefs and manufacturers begin to appreciate the dried fruit’s nutritional value and versatile usage, especially as a fat-free alternative to butter and sugar in baking. After securing a much-coveted EFSA health claim for digestion, the California Prune Board sees even greater potential to raise prune consumption in the UK, supported by a high quality offer and a three-pronged marketing strategy
The prune market in the UK is “very vibrant” and has “endless potential” to grow, according to Mark Dorman, who has overseen activities carried out by the California Prune Board (CPB) in Europe, eastern Europe and Russia for almost 30 years.
“Consumption of sweet products, like prunes, obviously changes with the seasons,” he tells Produce Business UK. “When the weather is hot there’s a decline in consumption. But generally it’s a very constant trade.”
Following three decades of non-stop marketing co-funded by the USDA-FAS in Washington and the CPB, Dorman says growth in the UK has been pretty consistent. “We’re a small industry but we’re getting the message across and the figures are racking up every year. We are seeing demand increase in the UK. Perceptions are changing gradually too – people are realising that it doesn’t matter what age you are, digestive health is important to everyone.
“Back in 1986 when we did our first study on consumer perception, awareness was in single figures. Now over 75% of people know that prunes are good for you; you can snack on them; they’re versatile; and they come from California.
“There is absolutely potential to grow the UK or we wouldn’t be spending money on marketing that the industry has to work hard to earn. We see terrific potential in the UK.”
Sources of supply
Prune supply to the UK is fairly well split between the USA and South America – primarily Chile. But Dorman claims the USA has a product that’s globally respected for being the “most consistently high quality”, all year round.
A massive 99.9% of USA production comes from California because of the state’s Mediterranean-like climate, where Dorman says the crop is “virtually one of the purest” thanks to very low levels of pesticides used in the production process.
However, after building up the market to the benefit of all, the USA must still pay a 9.6% import tariff to send prunes to the EU, a tax to which no other country is subject.
“It puts [the USA] at an enormous disadvantage,” admits Dorman.
“Chile has made inroads into the market because it doesn’t have a tariff barrier. Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of global economics, as the prune trade is quite small, no one has seen fit to have the tariff removed. We have to work with that handicap but it’s offset by our big spend on marketing.”
Despite prices rising 20% this year and having to pay the import tariff, during 2015 the UK will import the same volume of prunes compared with last year – 3,340 tonnes in direct shipments and 561 tonnes indirectly, via Germany.
Overall, Germany ranks as Europe’s biggest prune purchaser but Dorman says the figure is slightly misleading because the country is mainly a port of entry and, as such, product is transshipped all over the region, especially by pan-European retailers like Aldi and Lidl.
“Volume is virtually the same as in 2013/14 in the UK, but the EU as a whole is up 34%, which goes to show that the research we do every year, combined with our marketing, works extraordinarily well in that people want to buy a quality product and will pay for it,” notes Dorman.
What does California bring to the UK table?
With its annual crop averaging 100,000 tonnes, Dorman firmly believes California is the most consistent volume supplier of prunes in the world thanks to its technically advanced production systems.
“I wouldn’t still be doing this job if I didn’t believe it’s the best product on market,” he remarks. Millions of dollars have been spent on developing production techniques and improving everything from efficiency in production to the carbon footprint, environmental awareness and microbiological inputs. That’s worth paying extra for.
“There are generations of family farms, as well as handlers and producers [involved in the sector]. The industry goes back 150 years. There are 900 growers and 25 handlers who work under the umbrella of the CPB and there are immense quality control systems imposed upon every single one. Those controls are unmatched anywhere in the world.”
According to Dorman, California also produces “a better prune” in terms of taste and texture. “The variety is native to California after the D’Agen prune stock, brought over by the Europeans 150 years ago, was spliced with a native Indian plum tree,” he notes.
But producers didn’t stop there. There is round-the-clock work being done to improve flavour and texture right from the seeds, according to Dorman. “This is California at its finest,” he notes. “No one else in the world spends as much time and money trying to perfect prunes from the seed to the tree. California even uses sophisticated proprietary machinery to pit prunes with such accuracy that it defies all logic that virtually not a single prune is missed.”
California also has the capability to produce according to specific market, and consumer, requirements. “We do endless research into taste preferences,” explains Dorman. “We know what the Greeks like more than the French, and the Italians over the Germans.”
For the UK though, the flavour profile is about a specific moisture content, according to Dorman. “It’s slightly different to other European countries,” he claims. “There’s been a huge shift to a preference for pitted product in the UK too. This year alone we’ve got retail developments underway with diced prunes across six products at everyone from Marks & Spencer to Harrods, and Tesco.”
The CPB is open to working with the entire spectrum of the market to supply wholesalers right through to discounters and the premium end of the market whatever they require whether that’s a pitted whole prune or one of the many processed variants.
“The versatility of what California can supply is endless,” says Dorman. “We have a hugely segregated industry in that we produce for specific clients, including individual customers in the UK.
“We can ship prunes in their natural condition or handlers can process them at their plants in the USA or with their partners in the UK, Hungary and Poland. We have wholesalers who can supply prune paste, purée and oil, as well as diced and chopped prunes.
“There are wholesalers in Europe who can supply product direct to retailers and food manufacturers, plus a lot of retailers like to buy direct from handlers who produce, process and package the product for them. California has organic suppliers too.”
Nutrition key to unlocking UK potential
Although prunes are well-known for their gut-boosting benefits – as indicated in this article recently published on PBUK in the run-up to National Gut Week 2015 – after gaining a fully authorised health ruling from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the CPB sees a real opportunity to develop the UK market by going down the nutritional route.
“It has taken us years to prove via EFSA that prunes are good for your digestion,” states Dorman, adding that prunes are the only natural, whole and dried fruit to do so. “Thanks to the research we do on nutrition and health we now have the official health claim. We’ve made a great stride forward.”
According to the CPB, eating 100g of prunes daily contributes to normal bowel function as part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle. The dried fruit is packed with manganese, calcium, fibre, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, potassium and copper. More information about the nutritional benefits are detailed on CPB’s website.
“Prunes are amazingly healthy and they’re convenient to snack on too,” adds Dorman. “Athletes swear by them as part of their training. There are almost no downsides to a prune. They might look ugly but it’s one hell of a good product!”
What’s more, Dorman reveals that initial studies in the USA are also showing “very good potential” for prunes to also contribute to good bone density thanks to their Vitamin K content.
“The research is still being worked on but it’s looking extraordinarily promising,” he states. “If proven, that claim will benefit prunes from all countries of origin. It could grow the global market.
“Of course, it’s very early days in the research and it’s not something we’re claiming yet. But we’re doing a huge amount of research and we’re sponsors of the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF).”
Ways to spread the message
Prunes already play a traditional role in cooking across Italy, Spain, Greece and France, but one sticking point in the way of more rapid adoption in the UK comes down to Brits being less accustomed to using the dried fruit.
“Everyone knows prunes are good for you but it’s almost like a secret,” Dorman suggests. “It’s just a question of getting more people to eat and cook with them and that’s the art of marketing.
“We are running PR programmes to ensure Brits understand the versatility of prunes in general cooking. We have a three-pronged attack for the UK; educating people in how to use prunes, pushing the snacking element and running a health and nutritional drive.”
To demonstrate the unappreciated quality of prunes in cooking, the CPB is working closely with the UK foodservice industry in particular to highlight the multiple ways the healthy dried fruit can be used. The CPB’s website offers a whole host of recipe ideas and tips on easy ways to incorporate prunes into the diet too.
So far, the CPB has worked with the likes of TV chef and cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager, Frances Quinn and Paul A Young, the award-winning chocolatier who has used prunes in his chocolate. Chef Shrager is a huge prune fan, and you can read more about her work with the dried fruit in this previous article published on Produce Business UK.
“Prunes are a fantastic replacement for butter and sugar,” Dorman points out. “They have the same sweet taste, but a reduced fat content. Even chef Heston Blumenthal has produced a Christmas Pudding with our prunes for Waitrose.
“They have good shelf-life and you can use them in a variety of formats – diced, purée, powder or concentrate – in recipes like gluten-free bread, flapjacks or cake. Even the pits from pitted prunes can be used by processors to make prune oil or paste. We are genuinely trying to look at all avenues.”
The California Prune Board’s website dedicates a whole page to food professionals that highlights the reasons why chefs, nutrition experts, manufacturers and product developers might consider buying and using California prunes.
A handy brochure titled the Food Professionals Guide to California Prunes also features more information; covering quality and care in production, sustainability, the latest nutrition and health information plus information on the myriad ways that California prunes can add flavour and value to products.
You can also watch this video about the producers behind California’s prune industry.
And, find out more: