UK appeal endures for Spain’s major produce growing areas

Lettuce sorting Spain Proexport

Fepex reports that produce exports from Spain to the UK totalled more than 1.08m tonnes between January and September last year

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UPDATED: 24 February – Murcia's Gruventa eyes UK expansion


To outsiders looking in, it may appear strange that the UK is still of such importance to Spanish fruit and vegetable producers. It might be large in size, but the UK is also infamous for its perfectionism when it comes to appearance, plus the market is strongly represented by competitors from other parts of the globe. In spite of this, the UK remains one of the biggest recipients – at a Europe-wide level – of Spain’s fresh produce shipments. Produce Business UK investigates

When the figures are analysed, it’s easy to understand why the country continues to be so important for Spanish exporters. According to statistics from Spanish producer-exporter federation Fepex, fresh produce exports from Spain to the UK totalled more than 1.08m tonnes between January and September last year. This compares very favourably with the 1.03m tonnes exported to the UK’s shores from Spain during the same period a year before.

Southern Spain well suited to serve UK

Andalusia, and in particular the province of Almería, accounts for a significant chunk of this total, sending a total of 220,745 tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables northbound during the 2015 export season, according to Andalusian association Hortyfruta.

As one of the principal destinations for Andalusian fresh produce, the UK market is very important for growers across southern Spain, explains Hortyfruta president Francisco Góngora. In fact, he argues that the strong focus on exports through Almeria’s greenhouse horticulture sector had led growers in the region to become well versed in meeting the demands of all markets, including the UK. 

Francisco Gongora 01
Francisco Góngora, Hortyfruta president

“The export character of our horticulture means that adaptation to the demands of every market is already inherent within our business philosophy,” says Góngora.

Indeed, with a particular focus on the UK market, Hortyfruta has undertaken marketing studies over recent seasons to understand the needs of British consumers in more depth and to better meet their requirements.

In general, Góngora says the results of the past 12 months have been relatively good for Andalusia’s growers, with returns increasing by over 10% compared with the year before, as a result of larger-volume sales and, to a certain extent, prices. However, Hortyfruta’s president says the overall movement of prices at the current time is not so positive, with levels received falling below what would normally be expected.

Andalusia’s competitive advantage

Despite this, Góngora says Andalusian exports have remained strong. During the most recent (2015) season, the region exported close to 60,000 tonnes of its principal export, tomatoes, to the UK, followed by more than 50,000 tonnes of cucumbers and over 47,000 tonnes of peppers. Lesser, though still significant, volumes of courgettes, melons, watermelons, aubergines and green beans also figured among exports to the UK.

In spite of the large volumes, however, Góngora admits the demanding nature of the UK market and the high level of competition has meant it is now viewed by some exporters as being far less appealing than similar markets, in particular France and Germany.

“It’s a very competitive market where you can find products from very diverse origins, including Europe, north Africa, Latin America, and so on,” he explains. “Despite this, British retailers continue to very rigorous in maintaining quality standards and show a great deal of rigour during the whole supply chain process, including transportation.”

It’s in this area that Góngora believes Spain, and in particular Andalusia, has a competitive advantage. Given that the region’s exporters already produce to high quality standards using techniques such as biological pest control, he argues that Andalusian growers are in a strong position to deliver the “perfect” products demanded by British consumers.

Broccoli packing Spain Proexport

Major Murcian challenges

For Fernando Gómez, managing director of grower-exporter association Proexport in nearby Murcia, one of the biggest challenges facing Spanish producers is the increasing focus in countries such as the UK on local sourcing at the expense of imports.

This, he says, has led many in the sector to actively seek out alternative export destinations for their products. However, he believes European, and especially British, consumers and retailers continue to value the quality, food safety and service provided by Spanish producers.

In common with Almería, the UK remains one of Murcia’s most important markets, having exported fruits and vegetables worth an estimated €632m (£482m) to the country in 2014. Between January and November last year, the region exported some 530,652 tonnes of fresh produce to UK retailers, wholesalers and importers. Table grapes account for the bulk of Murcia’s fresh produce exports to the UK, followed by broccoli, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, lemons, tomatoes, melons, celery and other lettuce varieties.

In 2014, over 39% of Spanish fresh vegetable exports to the UK originated in Murcia, which Gómez believes is testament to the high regard in which British retailers and consumers hold fresh products from the region.

“The fresh produce exporters linked to Proexport feature all the characteristics to meet the requirements demanded by the British market and have client service as part of their DNA, and for this reason they have become of the principal suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables to the UK during the winter months,” he concludes.

Fernando Gomez Proexport
Fernando Gómez, MD of Proexport

Murcia's Gruventa eyes UK expansion

Indeed, one major Murcian fresh produce marketer Gruventa is looking to the UK for future export growth sales, although achieving this is not without its challenges, according to managing director Fermín Sánchez.

Sánchez claims the UK is central to Gruventa’s export business and represents a market where he believes there is plenty of room left for further sales development. “The British market is of paramount importance for us – it’s one of our preferential clients because each year we increase our market share there,” he says.

In fact, Sánchez claims Gruventa’s production deals, especially for vegetables, are planned and delivered according to UK market needs. As such, broccoli and iceberg lettuce are key products for Gruventa in the UK, alongside substantial volumes of table grapes, stonefruit, melons and watermelons. The group is also looking to introduce to UK consumers its recently-launched organic range.

For Gruventa as a company, Sánchez says the past 12 months have been relatively successful. Thanks to a 10% increase in both sales and volumes compared with the same period a year before, its business has continued to grow steadily.

However, much like its northern neighbour Valencia, Murcia has faced challenging weather conditions over recent months, from a near drought to what was described by regional agricultural association Asaja Murcia as “disastrous” frosts in some areas during February [2016], which particularly affected stonefruit and citrus production.

For Sánchez, meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges for Murcia as a region looking ahead is to continue to "work its magic" with the scarce water resources that this chunk of south-east Spain has available. “This magic is the strength and dynamism of our fresh produce sector and it’s through this that we are able to show our quality on a daily basis,” he concludes.

Gruventa Fermín Sánchez​ third from left
Gruventa team; with MD Fermín Sánchez (third from left)


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Canary Islands tomatoes strive to retain 130-year-old UK relationship built on quality

Spain's Anecoop builds on historical citrus strength to stay ahead in the UK

Unica claims innovation and cooperation are vital to UK success

Persimon: the 'unexpected hero' in Spain’s UK supply basket

Supply-chain logistics throw up Spanish transportation challenge

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