Whether simmering in a casserole or sizzling in a stir fry, onions form the base of countless meals that Brits cannot do without. Still though, consumption in the UK has the potential to be much higher. Produce Business UK finds out how fresh produce buyers can help consumers to purchase and consume more of the eye-watering root vegetable by positioning it better to meet ever-changing demand patterns. But, unless price points change, the likelihood is that those onions may increasingly be grown overseas
As Dr David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College, London, points out, European consumption of onions is “no more than mid-table in the per capita consumption league for vegetables”.
In the UK, the average person consumes roughly nine kilogrammes (kg) a year, according to Chris Wilkinson, chairman of the British Onions Association, which is fairly low compared with other countries such as Albania, whose onion-loving population tops the charts with a whopping per-person average consumption of 33kg a year.
“If we can stimulate more demand in the UK then our marketplace would increase dramatically,” notes Wilkinson. And there is ample opportunity to increase demand, suggests Hughes, providing the industry acknowledges and embraces the current trend for convenience products.
He says: “We used to go to the grocery store and buy things we called ingredients. Now, we grab meal components and bolt them together at home to produce a meal. Particularly for vegetables in the UK, sales growth is disproportionate for prepared produce – and many traditional produce items are in sales decline.
“Yet with increasing interest in eating healthily, there is plenty of upside potential for growing the market for fresh produce overall. The trend for more convenient produce and offering meal solutions to our customers rather than meal problems is inexorable.”
John Shropshire, chairman of Cambridgeshire-based salad growing giant G’s Fresh, certainly believes this to be the case. He reveals that in the context of the history of onion farming at G’s the market for prepared onions has been “astonishing over the last eight years”.
Shropshire adds: “The fresh operation market has shrunk – we are selling less onions because our customers – such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – are selling less. [But] throughout the recession period the convenience market has kept growing. We see that as an opportunity. [Our onion] peeling operation in Poland – that’s an opportunity we have to keep focused on.”
Ready meals and food to go…
Nick Gale, managing director of Wigan-based My Fresh Prepared – which processes more than 30,000 tonnes of onions a year – has also seen the convenience industry increase and suggests there could even be a market for a bespoke processing onion in the near future. He also points out that firms such as Aunt Bessie’s – a food producer best known for its frozen roasted potatoes and Yorkshire puddings – now produces frozen onion rings.
Meanwhile, Hughes says foodservice is “fighting back”, with this area of the food sector also cottoning on to the convenience trend. “For years, supermarkets have been stealing the share of the stomach from restaurants with ready meals and food-to go, [but] now Uber Eats and Amazon are gearing up to deliver high quality meals from favourite eating places direct to our homes,” he explains.
Know your onions (and your adjectives)
Fortunately, there is also ample opportunity for the retail sector to boost its onion sales, claims Hughes. However, he warns that this cannot be achieved whilst a “bewildering range of onions with confusing price points confront the shopper”.
He explains that the onion section of the fresh produce aisle is full of different types of onions that are all retailing at very different prices – from as little as £0.28 per kilogramme to as much as £3.33/kg. The problem with this, says Hughes, is most shoppers don’t fully understand the difference between a cheaper brown onion and a more expensive white one, for example.
The way in which retailers manage this particular category therefore needs to be “much improved”, he says. To that end, he suggests retailers use “adjectives” to sell onions in the fresh produce aisles. By this, he means words such as “locally-grown”, “sweet”, and “fiery” – ideally all printed on the packaging to describe the product and instruct consumers in how and why to use it.
Hughes cites Waitrose Cook’s Ingredients – such as its frozen “No more tears diced onions” and its “A handful of chopped shallots” – as an example of what other retailers could be doing. This range uses fun and stylish typography on the packaging to inform shoppers about what to do with the product, such as: “use a little or a lot in soups, stews and stuffing and onion sauce” or “sauté or fry with beans and bacon”.
A bumpy and twisty ride
Bearing in mind the strong trend for convenience foods, the message is clear: the onion sector is embarking on a significant period of change. Gale, at onion processor My Fresh Prepared, believes the next five years are likely to bring “more change than ever before”, while Professor Hughes suggests the trade should buckle its seatbelts and put on its crash hats because it’s going to be a “bumpy and twisty ride” ahead.
Furthermore, Gale points out that next year’s introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) is another key factor that’s going to have a major effect on the onion sector. He predicts it could, for example, lead to more automation in the processing industry and fewer “players” as processing businesses choose to either consolidate or shut their doors.
Once the NLW is established, Shropshire at G’s goes as far as to say there will be some crops, such as spring onions, that it will no longer be viable to produce in the UK because of their high production costs.
As such, he says G’s Polish onion operation will be “a strategic defensive opportunity” to enable the company to carry on producing certain products for the UK market in future. The firm’s spring onion growing site in Senegal, West Africa, which G’s set up four years ago, has the potential to become a base for growing other types of onions too.
Shropshire says: “I think Senegal could be one of the best places in the world to grow bulb onions. We have never used any fungicide over there – it just doesn’t get any disease and the soil is absolutely wonderful and there’s a lot of it.”
Shropshire and Gale’s predictions appear to suggest UK onion buyers could soon be sourcing from different countries and from fewer suppliers. Buyers could also soon be operating in a ferociously competitive marketplace and, as Hughes suggests, potentially looking to create new products.
But whilst change may be on the horizon, it doesn’t necessarily spell bad news for the resilient and creative fresh produce industry. On the contrary, clearly there are still opportunities to grow onion sales for those that adapt their offer to today’s consumer requirements.