Exporting fresh herbs to Europe
The European demand for fresh herbs is increasing. Fresh herbs such as basil, chives and mint thrive with the consumer trend of buying natural and their appreciation of culinary experiences. Opportunities for producers and exporters in developing countries are most prominent during the off-season and when availability from regional supply is low. Suppliers are expected to maintain excellent product quality and freshness and provide high-standard packaging.
Contents of this page
- Product description
- Which European markets offer opportunities for exporters of fresh herbs?
- Which trends offer opportunities in the European market for fresh herbs?
- What requirements must fresh herbs comply with to be allowed on the European market?
- Which additional requirements do buyers often have?
- What are the requirements for niche markets?
- What competition will you be facing on the European fresh herb market?
- Which trade channels can you use to put fresh herbs on the European market?
- What are end-market prices for fresh herbs?
Fresh herbs (herbaceous plants) refer to leafy green parts of a plant that have a culinary use for flavouring, or in some cases a medicinal or non-food use.
Botanically, a distinction is made between annual plants, biennial plants, perennial plants and scrubs. Typical fresh herbs that are used in Europe are, for example:
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
- Coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Mint (Mentha)
- Arugula or rocket (Eruca sativa)
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
- Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
- Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
Fresh herbs are available as freshly cut and packaged herbs, frozen herbs and potted plants. Potted herbs are generally not imported due to phytosanitary regulations and inefficiency in logistics.
Normally, fresh herbs are registered under the HS code 07099990 ‘Fresh or chilled vegetables not mentioned elsewhere’, but often other codes of chapter 9 and 12 are used as well.
Table 1: HS Codes for fresh herbs
Leeks and other alliaceous vegetables, fresh or chilled (excl. onions, shallots and garlic) (e.g. chives)
|Salad vegetables, other than lettuce (Lactuca sativa) and chicory (Cichorium spp.) (e.g. arugula)|
|0709 9990||Fresh or chilled vegetables n.o.s. (e.g. parsley, coriander dill, oregano)|
Fresh or chilled celery (excl. celeriac)
Source: Eurostat Comext
* There are no detailed statistics available on fresh herbs. This study provides you with trade information based on expert views and industry reports.
The demand for fresh herbs is increasing
The demand for fresh culinary herbs in Europe is growing. Especially consumers in northern Europe, including large markets such as the United Kingdom and Germany, are looking for fresh and more natural seasoning. However, the consumption of fresh herbs is also increasing in other regions in Europe.
Western Europe is a stable and growing market for fresh herbs with relatively stable prices. Eastern Europe is a more volatile market, but suitable as a spot market and less demanding in terms of packaging standards.
The most demanded fresh herbs in Europe are basil, chives, mint and parsley. Basil is the most popular culinary herb in Europe, making up between 60 and 75 percent of the total consumption.
Types and regional preferences
Culinary tradition and ethnic communities are a significant influence in the amount and types of fresh herbs that are consumed. Flavours and preferences in herbs are different throughout the region.
- The United Kingdom has a large Indian community and a relatively high consumption of coriander. Parsley, basil and mint are widely used as well.
- In the Netherlands, mint is very popular and often used for fresh mint tea. The Indo-Asian influence raises the consumption of coriander and lemon grass.
- In Germany, chives are a popular herb. A fairly large Turkish community stimulates the sales of oregano and mint.
- The French cuisine is known for their four fine herbs, being chives, tarragon, parsley and chervil. Northern African communities in France also increase the demand in parsley and coriander.
- The Mediterranean kitchen, including Spain and Italy, uses much oregano, parsley, basil and rosemary. Italy is also an important producer of fresh herbs.
- Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, has a preference for rich meals that include herbs such as bay leaves, dill, parsley and oregano.
- In northern Europe (Scandinavia, the Baltic states) dill is a common herb for cooking. In Sweden, mint and coriander are also gaining popularity.
Use the Netherlands for distribution
European buyers often combine the production in different regions in order to maintain a year-round supply. Fresh herbs from large-distance suppliers are normally air freighted into Europe. Because of the limited shelf life of fresh herbs, efficiency in logistics in essential. Therefore, it is best to send your fresh herbs directly to their final destination.
If your product cannot be supplied directly, the Netherlands offers a good alternative. The Netherlands has a tradition in the trade of fresh produce and is a main entrance for fresh perishable goods. From here, your product can be easily distributed to various European markets.
- Ensure continuity towards buyers in terms of volume and quality. At the same time, try to maintain a level of flexibility and avoid being dependent on a single buyer. Contracted production provides the most security.
- Explore the opportunities for cooperation with seasonal producers in Europe, for example in Italy or in other regions that complement your production season. Together you can organise a year-round supply and become more attractive for large buyers. You can find them through producer organisations or databases such as Food-companies or Europages.
- Keep up to date with market developments through news sites such as Fruitnet and Freshplaza.
Culinary experience broadens the interest in fresh herbs
There is a growing interest in new culinary experiences. Taste and new varieties of taste makers are part of these experiences. Consumers are often inspired by cooking programmes on television and online recipes. Also, ethnic cooking with Asian and African ingredients is becoming more and more integrated in Europe. As a result, consumers are open to trying new products and include more culinary herb varieties in their cooking.
This development provides opportunities for fresh herbs, but also for new varieties of fresh herbs. For example, wild rocket (arugula) and extra spicy rocket are new variations on regular salad rocket. Coriander, a non-traditional herb in northern Europe, is becoming more popular because of Eastern influences. A new trend includes edible flowers, a small niche that was identified as one of the food trends of 2018 by Food Manufacture.
- Try to differentiate in taste and consumer experience by exploring new varieties and communicate the superior taste of your product in your marketing.
A shift to fresh eating and natural flavouring
Consumers in Europe have an increasing appreciation for fresh, unprocessed products. Fresh herbs are considered to be more natural than dried or processed herbs and provide better customer satisfaction. Natural and fresh also relates best to people’s increasingly healthy lifestyles.
The handling of herbs as a fresh product can be very demanding and requires an excellent cold chain. Retailers ensure their freshness by packing them in convenient refrigerated packages or, in some cases, sell them frozen.
Innovations in preservation and packaging will enhance the development of fresh herbs in Europe. When exporting a consumer product, you can also use your packaging for the promotion of your product, as is shown in a publication by a Swedish herb company.
- Make sure that your (post-)harvest and cold chain are perfectly managed. This is crucial to maintain the right quality and shelf life that is expected by the European buyers.
- If you want to know more about dried herbs, have a look at the CBI market intelligence platform about Exporting culinary dried herbs to Europe.
Fresh herbs in drinks
Fresh herbs are not only used in solid food, but also increasingly used in drinks. Mint is a good example of such a herb. Mint is a common ingredient in cocktails such as mojitos. Nowadays, every well-equipped bar or restaurant also offers fresh mint tea and in supermarkets you can find mint mixed in fruit juices or in water.
Grow your own
Many European retailers have adopted potted herbs in their assortment to fulfil the interest of self-growing and to extend shelf life at the same time. An increasing number of consumers consider potted herbs good value for money and a sustainable way to enjoy fresh herbs. Basil and parsley are big sellers as potted herbs.
For non-European suppliers, potted herbs are a major phytosanitary and logistical obstacle because of the additional soil and high freight costs.
Growing interest in sustainable fruit and vegetables
Consumption of fresh vegetables in Europe is developing towards a more sustainable approach to production and processing. Environmental and social issues are becoming more and more important. Social and environmental certification schemes include actions to strongly reduce and register the use of pesticides, take action on the safety of employees and/or even include price guarantees.
Certification schemes that are in line with the Global Social Compliance Programme (GSCP) will have a higher chance of being accepted by European supermarkets.
Organic increasingly important for fresh herbs
Thanks to the increased attention to health and environment, there is also a growing interest in organically produced fruit and vegetables. For fresh herbs, an organic label has extra value because of its leafy nature and direct consumption. The demand for organic fresh herbs is growing, as in many supermarkets they have become the standard over their conventional counterparts, despite the additional challenges of organic production.
Local for local
European retailers are keen on purchasing from local sources when available. Local for local is considered more sustainable because of less transport, but it also fits the promotion of local seasonal products and regional farming. There is an increasing resistance against air-freighted vegetables, especially with larger retailers. Offering a competitive price is only a minor argument to compensate for the less sustainable supply by air freight.
For external all-year-round suppliers it will be difficult to maintain a market share during the European summer, when local harvest takes over. Your main advantage will be when local supply is low.
- Avoid full (year-round) dependency on the European market and try to maximise your profit in the European winter season, when imported herbs are in demand.
- For general trends, refer to the CBI market intelligence platform to see which trends offer opportunities in the European fresh fruit and vegetables market.
What legal and non-legal requirements must your product comply with?
Pesticide residues are one of the crucial issues for fruit and vegetable suppliers. The European Union has set maximum residue levels (MRLs) for fresh herbs. Expect buyers to be extra alert on residue levels, because herbs are consumed directly.
Northern Europe (including Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Scandinavia) is an important market for fresh herbs and supermarkets there tend to be stricter in residue levels than the European regulation. This means you have to control your production process very precisely.
- Use the European MRL database to find out the MRLs that are relevant for fresh herbs. You can search the database for your product or the pesticide used and find the list of the MRLs associated with your product or pesticide. There are listings for ‘herbs and edible flowers’ as well as specific listings for celery leaves, sage, basil and edible flowers and tarragon.
- Reduce the amount of pesticides by applying integrated pest management (IPM) in production. IPM is an agricultural pest control strategy that includes growing practices and chemical management.
- Read more about MRLs on the website of the European Commission and always check with your buyers if they have additional requirements on MRLs and pesticide use.
- See also the general information about buyer requirements for fresh fruit and vegetables on the CBI market intelligence platform for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Quality and size
There is no specific marketing standard for fresh herbs defined by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), but the General Marketing Standards of Regulation (EC) No. 543/2011 apply.
For fresh herbs, the quality of the leaf is most important, including its colour and the balance between stem and leaves. Quality requirements should not be underestimated. The following example from Israel provides further information:
- The Israeli Plant Protection and Inspection Services (PPIS) has published a presentation about the Quality Inspection of Fresh Herbs for Export from Israel. Israel is one of the main suppliers to Europe and has much experience with quality requirements.
The general marketing standards require fresh herbs to be:
- intact, sound and clean;
- free of visible foreign matter;
- free from pests;
- free from external moisture, foreign smell or taste.
You must also avoid decay, bruising, blackening, yellowing, pesticide residue, uneven colour and the lack of leaves. Product uniformity is important.
The condition of the fresh herbs must be such as to enable them to withstand transportation and handling.
- Maintain a constant and optimal temperature during storage and transport to ensure the freshness and shelf life of your product.
Fresh herbs need protective packaging. They can be packed as potted herbs as well as freshly cut herbs:
- Freshly cut herbs are usually packed in plastic, for example flow packs or sealed plastic trays, and shipped in carton boxes. If the herbs are packed in Europe, you can send your product bundled in boxes with a plastic liner, as is shown in a Freshplaza article about Kenyan herbs.
- Potted herbs are almost exclusively from local produce due to the presence of soil. Pots are packed in sleeves and a protective paper sheet on top will protect the leaves from scraping against the packaging and reduce the risk of external moisture.
- Packaging requirements differ between customers and market segments. Always check specific requirements with your buyer.
- Read the guidelines for packing and transport in the Recommended International Code of Practice for Packaging and Transport of Tropical Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (CAC/RCP 44-1995) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to understand the standards you will be dealing with.
Food sold in the European market must meet the legislation on food labelling. The label or marking of each box should at least give the following information:
- Name and physical address of the packer and/or dispatcher
- Product name
- Country of origin
- Commercial specifications: class and weight
- Traceability code (for example GLOBALG.A.P. Number (GGN) (recommended)
- Officially recognised code mark, such as a Global Location Number: the name and address of the packer or dispatcher can be replaced by an official control mark
For pre-packages, you must also:
- include the name and the address of a seller established within the European Union with the mention ‘Packed for:’ or an equivalent mention;
- use a language that is understandable by the consumers of the country of destination.
For organic produce, you must include the European organic logo and the code number of the control authorities.
- Find practical information about food labelling in the EU Trade Helpdesk.
- Find information on consumer packaging in the Codex General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods (CODEX STAN 1-1985) and about your obligation to inform consumers in EU Regulation No. 1169/2011.
Phytosanitary requirements for plants and plant products
The European Union has laid down phytosanitary requirements to prevent the introduction and spread of organisms harmful to plants and plant products in the European Union.
For example, for basil and celery your product needs to be subjected to an official inspection or accompanied by an official statement that they originate in a country free from diseases:
- Liriomyza sativae (Blanchard)
- Amauromyza maculosa (Malloch)
- Non-European Bemisia tabaci
In the Plant Health Directive 2000/29/EC, you can find which plants or plant products need to have a phytosanitary certificate for export to Europe. Make sure you search for the botanical name of your product. A model phytosanitary certificate can be found in Appendix VII of the Plant Health Directive.
- Check with the relevant National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO) or your EU importer what the requirements are for your product. Click here for a list of NPPOs.
- Familiarise yourself with the procedures before planning your exports to the EU. Failure to follow the right procedures could decrease and delay orders, increase costs and result in action by EU enforcement authorities.
Contaminants and microbiological hazards
In the cultivation of fresh herbs, you must take into account the potential risks of contamination and microbiological hazards.
Soil amendments, fertilisers and water are very important inputs in the production of herbs and manual harvesting is common. They are part of horticultural practice, but also potential sources of microbial contamination. You must make sure that your product complies with the legal limits:
- The maximum allowed limit of cadmium in fresh herbs is 0.20 mg/kg.
- Salmonella must be absent in samples of 25 g.
- E.coli must be limited to a value between 100 and 1000 cfu/g for a maximum of 2 out of 5 samples.
The following information sources can help you further:
- Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005, on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs
- Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 (appendix to section 3), setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs
- The Microbiological hazards in fresh leafy vegetables and herbs, a meeting report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
- Make sure to use clean water for irrigation, as water quality can pose serious microbiological risks.
- Implement HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) to diminish the risks of contamination from cultivation to post-harvest.
- Find more information about the regulation on contaminants on the website of the European Commission.
- Consult the EU Trade Helpdesk for a full list of requirements, selecting the product codes for fresh herbs, for example: 0709999000.
Certification as guarantee
As food safety is a top priority in all EU food sectors, you can expect most buyers to request extra guarantees from you in the form of certification.
GLOBALG.A.P. is the most commonly requested food safety certification scheme, essential for exporting fresh herbs to Europe, especially via supermarkets.
Examples of other food safety management systems that may be required are:
- BRC (British Retail Consortium)
- IFS (International Food Standard)
- FSSC22000 (Food Safety System Certification)
- SQF (Safe Quality Food Programme)
These management systems are additional to GLOBALG.A.P. and are recognised by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
- Check which food safety management systems are most commonly requested in your target market. Expect GLOBALG.A.P. to be one of them.
- Read more on the different food safety management systems on the Standards Map website.
- As food safety is a major issue, work proactively with buyers to improve food safety and be transparent and up to date with buyer requirements and regulations.
Social and environmental compliance
There is growing attention for the social and environmental conditions in the producing areas. Most European buyers have a social code of conduct which they will expect you to adhere to. For fresh herbs, social compliance is important, although product quality has top priority.
It can be a plus to be GRASP certified. GRASP is a social add-on of GLOBALG.A.P. and an accessible certification that is gaining importance in Europe.
Another good option is implementing standards recognised by the Sustainability Initiative Fruit and Vegetables (SIFAV), which consists of an initiative from traders and retailers to become 100% sustainable in sourcing from Latin America, Africa and Asia by 2020.
Fair trade certifications are less common for fresh herbs because it usually does not involve many small producers. In dried herbs and spices, you have more options for fair trade and other initiatives, such as the Sustainable Spices Initiative.
Organic, a growing niche market
The market for organic fresh herbs is growing but certified supplies from developing countries are limited. In order to market organic products in the EU, you have to use organic production methods according to European legislation. Among these requirements are:
- Your herbs need to be cultivated in soil (no hydroponic or soilless systems).
- Your production has to be cultivated according to organic methods for at least two years.
- Your product needs to be certified as organic by an accredited certifier.
- Consider organic as a plus, not as a must, and be prepared to comply with the whole organic process. Remember that implementing organic production and becoming certified can be expensive.
- Read more about the requirements related to organic farming in the CBI buyer requirements for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Difference in quality and season are reasons to buy herbs in developing countries
During the summer, Europe is supplied by local or regional suppliers in Italy, Spain, Greece as well as greenhouse growers in the Netherlands and other northern European countries. This makes it very difficult for oversees suppliers to be on the European market all year round. European producers are specialised and well organised. The larger ones, such as Vitacress and Van Vugt, have cultivation activities in various countries.
The European import of fresh herbs from non-European countries increases during the winter. Kenya, Israel and Ethiopia are important suppliers from November to May, but supply also comes from Zimbabwe and Rwanda.
Morocco, Egypt and Turkey also supply Europe with fresh herbs. These are relatively close to Europe and are able to differentiate in production costs or in quality. For example, mint from Morocco has strong stems, thus more flavour, thanks to the open-air cultivation with lots of sunshine.
Even long-distance Colombian producers, which are also internationally recognised for their fresh flowers, have shown interest in the European market for fresh herbs.
Competition by low-cost produce
The production of fresh herbs is often very labour-intensive and therefore expensive, especially in Europe. For European buyers, it can be worthwhile to complement locally sourced herbs with low-cost produce from other countries. This provides opportunities for developing countries such as Kenya that are able to cover the more expensive cost of freight with a price-competitive product. Kenya has fertile land, a good climate and lower production costs, which makes it attractive for European buyers and international growers.
Supermarkets have a strong bargaining position
Supermarkets have a very strong position and the highest standards, especially in northern Europe. Rivalry is fierce in the trade of fruit and vegetables, so suppliers of fresh produce to European retailers are not in a position to argue about the rules of the game. There is a preference for long-term partnerships, but buyers will switch to other suppliers if expectations are not met.
duce to European retailers are not in a position to argue about the rules of the game. There is a preference for long-term partnerships, but buyers will switch to other suppliers if expectations are not met.
- Establish a credible track record, including transparent information on your company and product quality. Being part of a stable partnership and being a trustworthy supplier can help you to establish and maintain your position on the market.
- Read the top tips for doing business with European buyers on the CBI market intelligence platform.
Quality and freshness are key for your market entry
Entering the European market is a big hurdle for many companies because of certification and the need to meet both legal and non-legal requirements. Importers and retailers are used to high-quality fresh herbs and are selective with their suppliers. In order to achieve a strong buyer relation, supplying top quality and freshness are a necessity.
- Do not compete on price alone, but build partnerships with buyers and strive for excellent product quality and handling.
Fresh herbs are a welcome substitute for dried herbs
Although fresh herbs are much more perishable, they increasingly substitute dried herbs, especially as a culinary addition. Consumers increasingly prefer the fresh option. For everyday cooking, however, dried herbs are still more common because of their shelf life and convenience.
Another in-between solution is offered by frozen herbs. These give the consumer the satisfaction of a fresh product and the convenience of a dried product.
Among herb varieties there is no competition, as each has its own unique flavour and purpose. The main threat for your product are locally produced herbs, especially potted herbs that may limit the demand for imported fresh herbs.
Supermarkets are the biggest channel for fresh herbs
Supermarkets spend a lot of attention on their fresh department. They sell freshly packed herbs as well as potted herbs. Nowadays, supermarkets sell more potted herbs than the traditional garden centres.
Large supermarket chains are also increasingly involved in sourcing activities, but most of the supply of fresh herbs from oversees is still handled by specialised importers. Importers differ in their relationship with the retail sector. Some are suppliers of private-label products, others have their own brand, while yet others market the brand of a producer (cooperation).
- Contact an experienced importer before entering the European market, especially if you are aiming for large retailers.
Service providers provide access to supermarkets
Successful suppliers to supermarkets often position themselves as service providers. They organise the supply chain according to the needs of their clients, from import to re-packing and branding. You can become part of this supply chain if you are able to offer the quality and logistics that a service provider requires.
It is common for fresh herbs to be re-packed according to retailer standards. A future step to explore as an exporter is adding value with retail packaging and pre-mixing. Mind that this is only feasible if it contributes to a cost-efficient trade.
Traditional channels sell unpacked herbs and specific varieties
Street markets, ethnic shops and small retailers of fresh vegetables are also in the market for fresh herbs, but their market share is much smaller than that of the large supermarket chains.
However, these smaller specialised trade channels offer opportunities for varieties and flavours that are less common to the larger public. For example, you can find fresh curry leaves, Chinese chives and Thai basil in ethnic shops.
These traditional channels are also more suitable if you do not work with packers. On street markets, vendors sell fresh bundles of herbs for reasonable prices, saving costs on expensive packaging.
Restaurants introduce and promote new flavours
Wholesalers that supply the food service segment can be important for the introduction of new types of fresh herbs. Restaurants distinguish themselves with creativity and taste, and are therefore more receptive to experimenting with different flavours and herbs. One of the recent developments is using edible flowers as a taste maker and decorative touch.
Ready-made food segment increases consumption
Fresh is the new standard and the market for convenient fresh ready-made meals, drinks and salads is booming. This is positive for the consumption of leafy vegetables, including fresh herbs such as rocket salad, spinach, watercress, mint and basil.
Processing companies need a reliable supply of ingredients to fulfil their contracts with retailers, although their volumes may be small. You will need to work with an importer to supply the fresh processing industry.
Table 2: Consumer price breakdown for fresh herbs
The consumer prices for fresh herbs are relatively stable:
- Potted herbs, such as basil or chives, are sold for around 2 euros.
- Most packaged freshly cut herbs are sold in small packages of 15 to 50 g for around 1 to 2 euros.
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