The 2015 season was the first for Catalonia’s stonefruit sector when exports did not get underway to the Russian market as a result of the latter’s decision to ban food imports from countries that supported economic sanctions imposed in retaliation for Russia’s role in Ukraine’s ongoing crisis. With surplus volume to market, Produce Business UK assesses what this means for future UK supplies
The Russian boycott seemed poised to have major consequences for Catalan’s stonefruit growers, given that the country had accounted for an estimated 15% of the Spanish autonomous region’s total peach and nectarine exports.
“As the first campaign without the Russian market, the season started with a palpable sense of nervousness from the beginning of the first sales,” admits Manel Simon, managing director of Catalan fruit producer-exporter association Afrucat.
Such nervousness should be hardly surprising, given that of the typical 40,000 tonnes of nectarines and peaches that Catalonia produces every year, some 75% is normally destined for export. However, a combination of low production volumes throughout Europe and spread-out sales periods from the continent’s main sources has meant that potentially significant difficulties for the sector have largely been avoided.
“The crop forecasts for peaches and nectarines have been low at a Europe-wide level and harvesting in the principal production zones has arrived without overlap and has been very staggered,” Simon explains. As a result, he says excess volumes in storage chambers have been avoided.
Potential for UK to gain
But could the UK prove to be a viable alternative destination for Catalan stonefruit? Even though only a modest quantity of the region’s fruit currently reaches the British market, Simon certainly thinks so.
The UK, he says, is viewed as a very interesting potential market for Catalan fruit exports, especially stonefruit, although Simon emphasises that at the present time the country only accounts for a small percentage – around 3% – of total fresh fruit exports from north-eastern Spain. Of this, more than 60% relates to stonefruit, followed by smaller volumes of apples and pears, citrus and other fruits.
Although volumes at the current time remain small, Simon believes there is ample room for expansion. “We’re seeing a huge interest in the UK for stonefruit and over recent years flat peaches have become established and accepted by consumers within the British market,” he says. “Our strategy is to work directly with supermarkets with made-to-measure proposals, in-store promotions and dedicated packaging, as well as helping our associated members to deal directly with their clients.”
As with any other market, Simon notes that Afruex and its associated companies have to persuade potential UK clients through the quality of their products – delivering sweet-tasting fruit at the optimum point of maturity – while also ensuring food safety and a professional service. Thanks to its offer, he believes Catalan fruit brands could also present sales potential in the British market, with positive brand recognition increasing the possibility of repeat purchases and adding value to the products.
However, despite the favourable outlook and the potential respite that Europe-wide lower volumes appear to have delivered for Catalonia’s stonefruit exporters, Simon says pressure on prices has far from decreased.
“The problem has come from the supermarkets who have been applying strong pressure on prices, even though the conditions have been good for an ideal campaign, and this has not allowed us to reach the levels we hoped to be able to overcome the crisis from the season before,” he says.
As a consequence of this pressure on prices, Simon states that European Union producing countries have had to ask for special measures to be taken by Europe’s authorities to ensure the viability of the sector and compensate for the lack of access to the Russian market.
In the case of Spain, some 34,000t of fruit was purchased for juice processing, which helped Catalonia’s stonefruit growers achieve a small increase in returns compared with year before, although Simon emphasises the total achieved still came “nowhere near” the level hoped for before the season began.
Late peach and nectarine varieties also experienced a disappointing campaign, although Simon puts this down to poor weather during August rather than the impact of the Russian boycott. In this latter case, he says prices remained stable until the close of the season.
Whether the year ahead turns out better remains to be seen, although Simon concedes the outlook is still complicated for Catalan exporters given the amount of fruit – particularly apples and pears – that is still being stored in refrigerated chambers across Europe.