Which trends offer opportunities or pose threats on the European fresh fruit and vegetables market?
Health, flavour and convenience are all factors that drive the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in Europe. At the same time, social standards and certifications are needed for better information sharing and transparency. Consumer behaviour has grown complex, while professional buyers are becoming more demanding due to the concentration of buyer power. The fresh sector requires you to be an expert in your field and integrate into a well-organised supply chain.
Contents of this page
- Buyers more focused on reducing risks
- Sustainable sourcing is becoming mainstream
- Health consciousness triggers clean consumption
- Convenience gains importance
- Hybrid consumers combine price-consciousness with luxury spending
- Integration requires more partnerships
- Diversity within the European Union affects trade flows
COVID-19 disrupted trade, but emphasises existing trends
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted the trade in fresh fruit and vegetables, but also strengthened some of the ongoing trends such as healthy eating and the increasing preference for local and organic products. For exporters it has become even more important to find efficient logistics and ensure a sustainable and clean product.
Table 1: Effects of COVID-19 on the trade and trends in fresh fruit and vegetables
Effect on international trade:
Effects in Europe:
Effect on existing trends:
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the demand for fruit and vegetables from restaurants and other food service providers shifted to the retailers. The retail sales increased, in particular for healthy, affordable fruit and vegetables with a good shelf life. Products that are typically used by restaurants and bars such as limes, fresh herbs and exotic fruit experienced a major decline. With less out-of-home consumption, consumers were able to increase their expenses on groceries with a positive effect on the sales of organic fruit and vegetables. Food delivery also flourished during the COVID-19 lockdowns and digitalisation accelerated during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has shown how fragile the (fresh) supply chains actually are and there have been great differences how countries responded on the pandemic. The European Union kept its borders open through so-called ‘green lanes’ to guarantee a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables for all its Member States. But international trade was hit hard because many exporters had to deal with reduced labour forces and difficulties in logistics. This resulted in higher prices through the entire food supply – an effect that will possibly be prolonged in the years to come.
Post-COVID logistics: shortage of containers and delays
The strong post-pandemic recovery increased demand for imported raw materials and finished products, especially in the case of Chinese goods to Northern Europe and the United States. The demand for containers has grown significantly: in one year’s time container prices have quadrupled or more and shipping delays became much more common. These problems were most notable in the east-western trade lines and transpacific trade.
Initially the logistical issues mainly hit the bulk trade, but reefers have started to get affected too. Efficient logistics are key for a quality fresh trade. Imported fruit is usually a high value cargo and in most cases they were able to absorb the higher container prices. The trade between China, the EU and the USA is dominant and often gets priority, so for some export countries it has become more difficult to get an available container and plan a shipment. For some fruit and vegetables, such as kiwi and onion, the lack of conditioned containers has partly been solved by using refrigerated ships (without containers).
However, the fresh fruit and vegetable trade will continue despite the high prices and logistical challenges. In the end consumers will pay the price. The principle consequence for exporters is they have to be even better organised in terms of logistics and for some products they will see more local sourcing in the European region and less import when fruit and vegetable prices are (too) high.
Logistical service providers expect this new reality to continue well into 2022 or beyond. The main problems will be solved once shipping companies are able to reorganise their structure and add both ships and containers on high demanding routes.
- Read the CBI news article ‘All hands on deck for the fresh sector’ to learn more about the initial impact of COVID-19 on the fresh fruit and vegetables sector and the CBI study ‘How to respond to COVID-19 in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector’.
- Adapt and learn from other companies and the steps they have taken during COVID-19. You can find numerous examples in a special report about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the international fresh produce business published by Fruit Logistica.
- Find information on freight rates and the latest logistical developments on Freightos or World Freight Rates.
1. Buyers more focused on reducing risks
Increasing global supply volumes and more concentrated buyer power put great pressure on the margins in the fruit and vegetables trade. Large retailers are able to maintain prices at a very competitive level but at the same time grow more demanding when it comes to product and supply standards. This is why traders become protective, imposing strict delivery terms and passing economic risks on to their suppliers.
Oversupplied markets make traders more cautious
The fresh trade is a delicate balance of supply and demand. Continuous production growth in Morocco, South Africa and Peru, among other countries, sometimes results in excessive export volumes. When that happens, prices will drop significantly and your power to negotiate is reduced to a minimum.
Oversupply is a reality that happens more and more often. Small margins and the continuous pressure on efficiency by large retail chains cause the European market to react strongly to changes in production and product availability. This scenario makes traders and importers very cautious, avoiding risks by hiding behind protocols and certifications. As an exporter, you may get punished immediately when products are not up to standard or when market results are poor. In these circumstances, buyers may not pay the minimum agreed price.
Existing suppliers have to understand and deal with these additional risks, while new suppliers face higher thresholds to enter the European market.
Certification is as important as the product itself
Food safety and certifications have become leading aspects in the fresh produce trade. GLOBALG.A.P. certification has become a common standard, while required maximum residue levels (MRLs) are often stricter than the legal limits. It seems that buyers nowadays are as concerned with certification as with the product itself.
Experienced buyers resent the fact that more and more fresh fruit professionals entering the business tend to focus too much on paperwork but lack actual product knowledge. All in all, certifications and paperwork are now a reality that every player in the trade must face and which only tends to intensify with the dominance of large retail chains.
Strict requirements are a challenge for every producer, exporter and importer. At the same time, if applied well, they can significantly improve your competitive position.
New European Directive offers protection to suppliers
Supermarkets and large grocery chains in Europe are increasing their market share in fresh fruit and vegetables. This means that as a supplier, you will have fewer end-clients to supply, but their dominant position often also results in unequal trade practices.
To mitigate the increasing concentration of buyer power and to protect small and medium-sized suppliers, the European Commission created Directive 2019/633 on unfair trading practices in business-to-business relationships in the agricultural and food supply chain. The directive, which also covers fresh fruit and vegetables, aims at protecting farmers, processors, distributors, producer organisations, as well as suppliers from outside the European Union.
Under the new directive, a number of practices will be prohibited or only allowed when unambiguously agreed upon. The practices to be prohibited include, among others:
- Payment later than 30 days;
- Last-minute order cancellations;
- Refusal to enter into a written contract;
- Unilateral contract changes;
- Transferring the costs of examining customer complaints to the supplier.
- Make sure to have written agreements with clear and acceptable delivery terms. Use a legal expert or the Model contracts for small firms and legal guidance for doing international business of the International Trade Centre.
- Compare your delivery terms with contracts commonly used by European companies, for example the supply contract used by Dutch supplier Direct Fruit Services.
- Take pictures of your product before shipment and make sure that your buyer specifically accepts the product and its quality as soon as it arrives.
- Study the buyer requirements for fresh fruit and vegetables on the CBI market information platform to understand the paperwork that is involved in the export of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Read the brochure of the European Commission to learn more about the proposed directive on unfair trading practices in the agricultural and food supply chain.
2. Sustainable sourcing is becoming mainstream
Consumer awareness is growing due to increased transparency. People at all levels in the value chain are gaining interest in fruits and vegetables produced and traded under more sustainable and responsible practices. This trend relates to many aspects along the supply chain, including working conditions, water use, waste management, among other things. The increasing populatiry of organic products is also part of this trend towards sustainability (see next chapter). Your product is most likely to be accepted by European buyers if it complies with sustainability initiatives.
The European ‘Green Deal’ aims to make the EU climate neutral
In the coming years the European ‘Green Deal’ will influence how resources are used and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. The new EU policies on sustainability will prepare Europe in becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. One of the most relevant parts for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry is the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy.
The Farm to Fork Strategy aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly. It will ensure sustainable food production and address for example the sustainable use of pesticides, packaging and food waste. With an organic farming action plan, the European Commission has set a target of ‘at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming and a significant increase in organic aquaculture by 2030’.
The Green Deal will undoubtedly have an impact on the international food trade. Several EU trade agreements already include rules on trade and sustainable development. These include, for example, the agreements with most countries in Latin America, Moldova, Ukraine and Vietnam. For suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables, it is important to look ahead of the increasing standards and try to be in the frontline of the developments.
The ‘Year of Fruits and Vegetables’ promotes sustainable practices
The year 2021 has been designated by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV). It is an incentive to raise awareness of the important role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, food security and health as well as in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to address global challenges to eradicate poverty, find sustainable and inclusive development solutions, ensure everyone’s human rights, and generally make sure that no one is left behind by 2030.
Figure 1: Sustainable Development Goals related to fruit and vegetables
Source: FAO. 2020. Fruit and vegetables – your dietary essentials. The International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, 2021, background paper. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb2395en
Sustainability Initiative Fruits and Vegetables (SIFAV)
Several leading retailers and traders throughout Europe are joining forces in the Sustainability Initiative Fruits and Vegetables (SIFAV), coordinated by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH). SIFAV addresses cross-cutting supply chain challenges such as smallholder farmer inclusion, health and safety, food safety and the sustainable use of water resources.
Counting over 30 members, SIFAV is pioneering a development that you will see more often throughout the European supply chain. Under SIFAV, all private sector partners commit to the common sustainability targets for 2025. For example, they agreed to
- measure and reduce the environmental footprint of priority products by 2025, including a reduction of 25% of the carbon footprint and food loss;
- implement a social third-party verification for 90% of the volume from high and medium-risk countries;
- and take a first step in improving Living Income.
Attention to the use of water resources
Industry sources mention water conservation as one of the principal concerns in the production of fresh fruit and vegetables. This subject has particular importance for water intensive crops such as avocados, asparagus and stone fruit. For example, in the past few years several restaurants in the United Kingdom banned avocado from their menus due to the excessive use of water resources. The effects of these reactions on consumer awareness over water use have the most impact on production regions where water is scarce, such as Morocco, Egypt, Peru and Namibia.
The growing attention to water resources will force producers in arid regions to switch to other crops or find sustainability solutions and technology. For pioneering companies such as Eosta, a Dutch importer of organic and fair fruit and vegetables, water use is one of the main aspects factored in the true cost accounting of their products. They recently addressed the issue in March 2021 with a stunt near the Dutch parliament promoting water-saving avocado’s.
For growers, responsible water use will become part of common standards, such as the SPRING add-on for GLOBALG.A.P. certification, a Sustainable Program for Irrigation and Groundwater Use originally developed by the Swiss retailer COOP.
Reducing plastic packaging
Part of the sustainability movement targets the reduction of plastics in the supply chain, which retailers and policy makers take very seriously.
The European Union adopted a Plastics Strategy in 2018, recommitting to work towards the goal of ensuring that all plastic packaging be recyclable by 2030. March 2020 was the launch of the European Plastics Pact, a public-private coalition with clear targets up to 2025 to rule out single-use plastic products and packaging. For suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables it will diminish the use of food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, among other things.
Supermarkets in various countries have also started to act towards reducing plastic. The examples are numerous:
- The Netherlands: Dutch organic retail chain Ekoplaza introduced the first plastic-free supermarket using, for example, biodegradable packaging;
- The United Kingdom: several supermarkets in the United Kingdom have pledged to take measures to reduce plastic bags and packaging. For example, in December 2020 Tesco announced that it has removed one billion pieces of plastic, including small plastic bags used to pack loose fruit and vegetables.
- Germany: Germany’s market leader REWE Group says it has achieved a saving of 9,000 tonnes of plastic per year by banning plastic bags.
At the same time there is lots of criticism on the commitment and results of supermarkets to ban plastics by the Plastic Soup Foundation, Greenpeace and even good intentions are questioned by bloggers on treehugger.com. But both negative and positive attention will only increase consumer awareness and provide incentives for alternative solutions.
Reduction in the use of plastics will continue to affect the packaging of fresh fruit and vegetables.
A British packaging producer developed a sugar-cane based packaging option and the Indian company Uflex has started to use special biodegradable liners of Perfotec to extend the shelf life of fresh products.
For organic fruit, laser labelling is becoming more common and is replacing plastic packaging. Supermarkets such as ICA in Sweden and Rewe in Germany already use laser labelling for products such as organic avocados, sweet potatoes, squash and melons.
Another anticipated packaging innovation to curb the use of plastics is NanoPack, an EU-funded project that will develop antimicrobial packaging solutions for perishable foods based on natural nanomaterials. This project combines sustainable packaging with the prevention of food-borne illnesses and the reduction of food waste.
Less and recyclable plastic is the new standard. In the long term, you can expect plastic being reduced to a minimum or even completely replaced by alternative, biodegradable materials.
Figure 2: Example of top-seal packaging for mango at Waitrose (UK)
Photo by kiliweb per Open Food Facts licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Figure 3: Example of laser-labelled produce by ICA (Sweden)
Source: ICA Gruppen
Local sourcing and seasonal eating
Sustainability is an important aspect for consumers to buy locally grown fruit and vegetables. Freshness and quality are also arguments often cited for local and seasonal purchases.
As more information is made available, consumers learn more about local seasons and to value local products. Media and supermarkets help consumers by sharing recipes using seasonal and local products. Platforms such as Lokaal & lekker (‘Local & tasteful’) provide information on local producers and how to use their produce in food preparation. Leading French supermarkets such as Carrefour and E.Leclerc emphasise local products on their label or through online presentation or inform consumers about typical seasonal fruits.
For distributors, there are fewer risks in buying products locally or close to the local market. They will only resort to external suppliers when there is a clear advantage or when local produce is not available.
As an exporter to Europe, you must be aware of seasonality playing an increasingly important role in the daily consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. You also have to take into account the production strengths of different European regions. For example, Spain is a leading grower of citrus fruit, the Netherlands has a very well developed strawberry production and France is a strong producer of plums. During their local production season, imports of these products will be reduced to a bare minimum. The FAOSTAT database can provide further insights into the European production.
- See the buyer requirements for fresh fruit and vegetables on the CBI market information platform for sustainable initiatives and certifications that may be required by your buyer.
- Apply water saving technologies when possible, such as drip irrigation or mulching.
- Investigate various local options for packaging and packaging materials. As an exporter, you must try to reduce the use of plastic as much as possible, but you can also use innovative and smart packaging as a way of differentiating your company.
- Stay ahead on innovations and trends. Subscribe to newsletters such as Freshplaza.com and look for publications such as the Fruit Logistica Trend Report 2020 with a guide to sustainability in the fresh produce business.
- Read the news article where the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Janusz Wojciechowski, recognised organic farming as part of the solution to the climate and biodiversity crises.
3. Health consciousness triggers clean consumption
Health has always been a strong selling point for fresh fruit and vegetables. In recent years, consumers have become increasingly conscious of adopting a healthy diet. This has led to a higher demand for fresh snacks and more specifically fruits and vegetables, but also to the need for cleaner, more natural products. Retail brands often highlight specific health benefits in their product presentation and require suppliers to provide chemical-free and organic products.
Northwest Europe leads the way in healthy fruit and vegetables
Products with specific healthy characteristics such as blueberries, avocados and pomegranates have become more popular, especially in northwest Europe. The fact that leading retailers have massively embraced these products confirms the consumer’s interest in using fruit as a means for a healthy diet.
Growing interest in veganism and plant-based food will help to increase the vegetable consumption, especially those high in protein. The EU-funded ‘smart protein’ project has reported 49% growth in Europeans’ consumption of plant-based foods in 2 years. The number of Europeans deliberately consuming meat less frequently is growing rapidly at 22.9%, as revealed by a nutrition study by Veganz in 2020. Consumers in Northwestern Europe are generally most prepared to adopt plant-based substitutes. For example, in Germany almost 30% of the consumers consider themselves ‘flexitarian’ and the number of vegans has doubled in four years from 1.3 to 2.6 million.
Small fruit is ideal as a healthy snack and as a result the demand for blueberries and raspberries has increased significantly over the past years. But despite their growing popularity, many ‘super fruits’ remain most popular with a relatively wealthy consumer group and specialised import companies. More accessible alternatives include snack vegetables such as mini-tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and radish, which are widely available in small containers at most supermarkets. However, it will be difficult to profit as an exporter of fresh vegetables, since most vegetables are locally produced.
Figure 4: Example of presentation of a premium, healthy product
Image by ICI Business
Popularity of pure and organic continues
A significant group of European consumers are increasingly seeking pure and natural products such as organic fruit and vegetables. One of the main motivations for buying organic is because these products are associated with health and better taste. Consumers in the European Union spent an average of €84.2 on organic food per person in 2019. Per capita consumer spending on organic food has doubled in the last decade.
According to data of The World of Organic Agriculture from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the organic market in the European Union grew by 7.7% in 2018 to a retail turnover of 37.4 billion euros. The organic import of tropical fruit (fresh or dried), nuts and spices represented the single biggest category, with 794 thousand tonnes or 24.4% of total organic imports.
Organic food consumption is developing exceptionally well in relatively wealthy countries. The market share for organic fruit and vegetables in Europe varies from around 1% to 6% in most eastern and southern European countries up to 11% to 23% in Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria. In terms of total value, Germany and France offer you the largest market for organic food; with retail values of 12 and 11 billion euros respectively, they represent more than half of the total EU market.
The organic market is expected to grow over the next years. Sales are especially driven by general retailers, which are gaining market share from specialised organic grocery stores. The top vendors in Europe include Tesco, Metro, Carrefour, Ahold and the REWE group. But there are also specialised organic retail chains, such as Denn’s Biomarkt in Germany and Austria, Biocoop in France and Ekoplaza in the Netherlands.
Although you must consider the organic market still as a niche, it is an important niche that is growing rapidly and is closely related to consumer interest in healthy and pure eating. The local production area often cannot keep up with the demand, which creates potential for overseas supply. This makes your search for buyers and better margins easier, but it can be challenging and expensive for exporters in tropical climates to comply with the increasing organic standards in Europe.
- Check The Vegan Society website for more data related to vegan consumption.
- Be careful with making nutrition and health claims. These claims are subject to European regulations and the EU Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods. For example you are not allowed to claim anti-ageing properties of blueberries.
- Make sure to understand well the European guidelines for organic products. Browse to Organics at a glance on the European Commission’s website.
- Check Organic-world.net for key data and developments on organic agriculture and check the CBI study on the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables on the European market to read what organic means in different European markets.
4. Convenience gains importance
Lifestyles in Europe are becoming more fast-paced, with an interest in easy and convenient foods. European companies offering additional processing services such as ripening and consumer packaging, including cutting and mixing fresh fruit and vegetables, will become more important. To benefit from this trend, you must find buyers that can add value to your product and accurately monitor the quality that these buyers require.
Large retailers are experts in turning fruit and vegetables into a convenience product
Large retailers are key in the development of convenience products. They have a strong influence on how fruit and vegetables are presented and are diversifying their assortment of snack vegetables, ready-to-eat fruit and freshly cut products. But within the fresh convenience products you can also find varieties of seedless fruit, easy peelers, products with prolonged shelf life and individually sized fruit, such as mini papayas or mini watermelons.
There is growth potential for ready-to-eat and ripened fruit. It is convenient for the consumer and cheaper in transport than the airfreight of tree-ripened fruit. An underlying development is the improvement of ripening processes for fruits such as mango, avocado and papaya in the importing country. To supply ripening companies timing and the right level of maturity will be your main concerns.
Another convenience solution is freshly cut fruit and vegetables. Pre-cut products not only save the consumer time, they also meet the demand for healthy snacks ‘on the go’ and add up in the consumption of fruit and vegetables. For some suppliers, it is possible to add value by cutting and packaging the fruit at origin, but this is mostly reserved for suppliers with a short transit time to Europe and for products that require manual processing such as pomegranate arils.
The Indian company Santosh fulfils the European demand for pomegranate arils with different small and bulk packaging options. Blue Skies has made sustainable processing at the origin into a business model. With factories across Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Benin, Brazil and the UK and pack house facilities in Senegal and Ivory Coast, they make their finished product, fresh-cut fruit, fresh fruit juices, and non-dairy ice creams, where their fruit is grown.
Convenience fruit and vegetables are exceptionally strong in countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, because of the strong supermarket dominance and the offer of ready-to-eat and pre-cut fruit and vegetables is extensive. But it is on the rise in other parts of Europe as well, such as in Italy and Spain, where the convenience trend is mostly focused on freshly cut fruit and vegetables. The German market stays behind, likely because of concerns about the safety, quality and freshness of pre-cut fresh produce, but it has much potential to grow in the future.
E-commerce is expected to gain market share
The online grocery channel is developing fast in Europe. E-commerce facilitates fresh products on demand and will further strengthen the convenience trend. The COVID-19 pandemic has given online grocery shopping an extra push.
In 2019, 17% of the consumers in the European Union (including the UK) shopped online for groceries. Leading countries are the Netherlands and the UK (see figure 5).
According to the Nets E-commerce report 2020, e-commerce in Europe has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Germany 33% of the consumers say they shop more online now than they did before the pandemic hit. In Poland this percentage is 42% and in Austria 38%. Consumer research by NielsenIQ shows that the growth of online sales of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) in the Netherlands was more than 12 times larger than the offline growth, in the UK and in Spain more than 11 times, and in Italy even over 16 times.
Grocery retailers and supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s in the United Kingdom and Albert Heijn in the Netherlands are developing their online product range to meet the growing interest among consumers. Their effort is partly out of necessity, because in the past years many other online concepts have popped up, such as:
- Fully online grocery stores such as Picnic (Dutch), Ocado (British), Rohlik (Czech) and Crisp (Dutch).
- Delivery of meal boxes with ingredients and recipes, for example HelloFresh and Gousto.
- International online giants, such as Amazon Fresh, which recently launched in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, and closed partnerships with Wm Morrison Supermarkets (UK), Día (Spain), U2 Supermercato (Italy) and Monoprix (France).
- Food delivery platforms such as Just Eat Takeaway.com, Deliveroo and Uber Eats, providing food delivery as a service.
Eliminating physical shops makes the supply chain more efficient, but consumers can no longer handpick their fresh fruit and vegetables. Because quality and freshness are key elements for consumers, e-retailers will make sure their products meet their expectations. They will transfer the responsibility of delivering a uniform and reliable quality to you as a supplier. If you focus on quality and use protective packaging, you will have a better chance to sell via online channels Europe.
- Optimise your post-harvest, cooling and processing activities to preserve optimal shelf life. For example, check the temperature in every step of your harvest and post-harvest activities.
- Have a look at the offer of convenience fruit in supermarkets in Europe. Sometimes it is easy to spot brands and trace them back to specialised companies which can be interesting to contact.
- Learn more about pre-cutting fresh produce through the FAO publication Processing of fresh-cut tropical fruits and vegetables: A technical guide.
- Search for the largest online retailers in Europe per country on Ecommerce News Europe.
- Read CBI’s tips to go digital and learn about digitalisation in the fresh industry, including e-commerce.
5. Hybrid consumers combine price-consciousness with luxury spending
Price has traditionally driven the market for fresh fruit and vegetables, but today’s market is more dynamic. Retail discounters are claiming increasingly greater market shares, while consumers are complementing their price-conscious shopping habits with an interest in exotic and special-quality fruit and vegetables. This means you will find new consumer groups for high-value and niche products, while high-volume fruit will still be pressured by price competition.
Diversification and price shopping provide different opportunities
Niche products and new varieties will continue to be introduced on the European market. These new products provide unique flavours and give satisfaction to the consumer, particularly within the high-end market. These products include exotic fruit and vegetables, extra tasty varieties, tree-ripened fruit, organic products and others.
As consumption grows, they become part of the common assortment. This has been the case with popular products such as avocados, blueberries, mangoes and sweet potatoes, which have shown a strong annual import growth of 10% to 20%. Most of these products have a high import share from developing countries.
The most common and large-volume products in Europe have less fluctuations. These products are part of the standard purchase for which consumers are very price-conscious. Therefore, the opportunities for these products are linked to high efficiency and low-cost production. Countries that manage to benefit from this competitive trade include, for example, Morocco with tomatoes and Egypt with oranges.
Branding enhances consumer experience
In addition to the consumers’ selection of exotic and special-quality fruit and vegetables, taste and experience are also playing an increasingly important role. Consumers are willing to pay premium prices for products that have consistently good taste. Branding and storytelling are necessary tools to support the marketing of exceptional taste.
Examples of importers’ branding strategies include:
- Companies such as NETA and Hillfresh use taste as a unique selling point under the motto ‘NETA A world of flavours’ and ‘Hillfresh The Expert in Taste’;
- Nature & more, an Eosta brand focusing on transparency and sustainable farming. For example, one of their papaya farmers in Ghana switched to organic and sustainable farming by applying manual weed control instead of using pesticides;
- EatMe, a quality guarantee of Nature’s Pride for tasty and ripened products.
Brands often exist for the sake of consumer experience. That is why you must be prepared to share your story with the brand that you introduce or the branding company you are working with. But be aware that the appearance of your product is still most important, especially in north-western Europe. Taste is especially valued in southern Europe. To work successfully together with a brand, you must be on top of quality control and supply a product that meets the promise of the brand.
- Look for specialised importers when supplying niche fruit and vegetables. You will find many of these companies at Fruit Logistica, the largest annual trade fair for this sector in Europe.
- Make sure your luxury product arrives in perfect conditions. Do not make the mistake of shipping your product when they are insufficiently matured. In this segment, a bad experience can easily put off a consumer, and your buyer as well.
- Work together with partners in Europe when branding a product. The work involved with positioning your brand can be a considerate investment.
6. Integration requires more partnerships
In the fresh fruit and vegetables business, the supply lines are becoming shorter and more efficient. Closer contact among farmers, traders and retailers results in better control and transparency throughout the value chain. This control is used to build expertise in specific products and to comply with the strict delivery terms of large retailers. To acquire a stable position in the European market, it is important that you join forces and opt for strategic partnerships.
Changing role of importers
As a result of increasing competition and concentration of buyers, the role of importers and wholesalers is changing. Importers nowadays only survive by specialising themselves and focusing on a unique market position. Larger companies integrate their main activities and become service providers to retailers, offering services such as repackaging, mixing and ripening fruit and vegetables. Importers tend to focus increasingly on efficiency and just-in-time delivery, to try to shorten their supply chain to retailers and save on warehousing costs.
Importers that supply large retail chains work with supply contracts and prefer to do business with large producers. Small overseas suppliers can best focus on specialised buyers. Many of them will not have direct retail access, but they can help to distribute your product to the right buyer or market channel.
Partnerships and good connections are key. You must know your buyer and understand which advantage they can offer to your company.
European buyers connect with producers
To increase control over the supply chain, buyers become more involved in the activities of farmers. This way they are better capable of ensuring reliable volumes and compliance with retail requirements, transparency and good agricultural practices.
Some companies have invested in the cultivation of fresh fruit and vegetables, taking ownership in production, while others have exclusive contracts with farms. Examples are numerous: multinational fresh companies such as Greenyard and TotalProduce have their own sourcing offices and contracted farming abroad. The British Blue Skies was founded after starting cultivation in Ghana. Elbe Fruit in Germany has an exclusive cultivation contract in Guatemala and works with partner farmers of GreenPath Food in Ethiopia.
For independent exporters, it is becoming almost impossible to develop long-term partnerships without having a direct link with farming.
- Pick your client well — look for specialisation — and be prepared to establish long-term relationships. However, there is much work to do in building these relations. Do not expect that companies are looking for new suppliers, but most will be happy to meet you if your product is interesting to them.
- Make sure to have your own production or direct access to reliable production volumes. Team up with other producers when your company size or product volume is not large enough. Make yourself an attractive and competitive supplier.
- Read the CBI tips for doing business with European buyers of fresh fruit and vegetables to see what you can do to become a valued partner for European buyers.
7. Diversity within the European Union affects trade flows
The European Union is an economic union of 27 countries (after the Brexit in January 2020). In addition to common European policies and regulations, each country has its own policies and rules and the enforcement of these policies and rules is not necessarily the same in all countries. Trade regulations, buyer requirements and consumer preferences varies within Europe and are subject to change. As a supplier you can best keep your options open by complying with the highest standards and maintaining the best possible quality.
Differences within Europe
The European regulation for importing fresh fruit and vegetables applies to all countries in the EU, but differences in enforcement and control among countries remain.
Products that are acceptable for one country can be rejected in another market. For example, in Belgium the stems of imported limes need to have three millimetres or less, while the Netherlands accepts stems of up to five millimetres.
Individual buyers also have differences among them. For example, large retailers in Germany and the Netherlands tend to maintain stricter limits for residues than the European legislation. Discount supermarket Lidl is one of the strictest retailers, allowing for only a third of the legal limit.
Although one of the objectives of the European Union and many supply chain actors is to standardise rules in trade, you cannot underestimate the different business practices within Europe nor expect compliance and standards to become the same everywhere anytime soon. This is why it is important to find a partner that is familiar with these differences. By making use of their knowledge, you can find the best route and market for your product.
Brexit may offer more direct trade opportunities
Brexit (Britain leaving the European Union on 31 January 2020) has had a strong impact on the trade of fresh produce between the UK and the remaining EU member states. Promotion of local UK produce and slow consumption due to high prices can equally be a threat for non-EU exporters, but there are also opportunities to fill in gaps.
Despite the last-minute agreement with the EU, the fresh trade has become more complex and expensive with more bureaucracy and logistical inefficiencies. The lack of foreign labour forces in the UK and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed prices up further.
British consumers are tempted to become more nationalistic and choose local products (see figure 6), and there are also concerns that the consumption of fruit and vegetables will decline. However, most of the UK market remains dependent on an external supply of affordable fruit and vegetables and non-European exporters could play a more prominent role. For example, grapes that are now supplied by Greek producers or Dutch traders could be replaced by direct imports from Egypt.
After the Netherlands, the United Kingdom is Europe’s largest direct importer from developing countries. The UK trade agreements with non-EU countries will open a new door for exporters in various countries to start establishing partnerships.
Figure 6: British blueberries with clear indication of origin
Photo by kiliweb per Open Food Facts under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
- Discuss in detail the product specifications with your buyer before shipment. Besides the common marketing standards for fresh fruit and vegetables, also make use of the experience of your buyer.
- Stay up to date with the trade relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom via the GOV.UK website and the European Union Newsroom.