Westfalia Fruit International’s U.K. operation Greencell has recently introduced a new patented UV process it claims both boosts food safety and the shelf life of avocados, at a time when the category is booming and post-harvest practices are more critical than ever. At Fresh Fruit Portal we catch up with the group’s executive manager for Europe, Graham Young, to discuss new technology, the rise of Mexican supply in the old continent and expansion into Mediterranean production.
Through this conversation we’d love to capture the essence of what’s happening in the British avocado market, a key sales outlet for suppliers such as South Africa, Peru and Chile. How would you describe developments in the U.K. with such significant demand and what seems at times to be fairly limited supply?
It’s interesting to see the key characteristics in the U.K. of late for avocado demand. I suppose we have to start with the statistics. If we go back even six years, 22% of U.K. households purchased avocados at least once a year. That’s now up to 34% just in six years, so the penetration has been substantial.
The number of people who buy avocados and also repeat purchase them has also been of note so while there are more people buying avocados, the average numbers of purchases per person has also gone up. It’s quite a phenomenon, and a beneficial one.
Why are they doing it? We put it down to two things. One is the drive for health, and secondly it’s indulgence. It used to be that avocado fats were seen to be pretty bad for you. It was then discovered that the fats in an avocado are good and healthy, so there’s that indulgence factor because they taste so good even though there some is fat in there, and it’s good fat.
And how about the types of usage? Are you seeing it on toast, guacamole or sushi?
You identified something when you suggested some of the main ways of eating avocado. You identified a breakfast occasion with avocados on toast, lunchtime meal solutions and evening meal solutions. That’s what’s happened to avocado. It never used to have those three occasions when it could be used, and there’s also snack time in between.
What sort of demographics are consuming the fruit? Is it more young people? Or people in certain parts of Britain?
We’re seeing it across the south more than the north, and if we go within the M25 that’s where the highest concentration of repeat purchases is. That’s not wholly surprising, but what has driven it and helped it is the number of Millennials who have decided to Instagram it.
They’ve given the avocado industry within the U.K. the boost that no industry-funded marketing campaign could have afforded to do. Individual consumers on their own are using new media to show people what they’re doing with an avocado in numbers that we find baffling.. It’s the most Instagrammed, photographed object we’ve been told within the U.K. – it’s extraordinary. Quite why they feel the need to photograph it, we don’t know.
As a marketer, in a situation where the public is doing the marketing for you, where then do you need to put your efforts?
Into quality. And if consumers are being so good as to be interested, then it’s up to the industry – and we’re a major part of that industry – to make certain that those avocados genuinely are what those consumers wish for. And if they are, they’ll repeat purchase and the whole virtuous cycle will continue.
Operationally, what has that meant in terms of your systems?
That brings me to some important news. As most things do, avocados could have a bacteriological load on the outside, and you need only look at the lettuce industry in the United States as an example to see some of the problems they’ve had with E.coli. It’s a public health issue.
What we’ve done is we’ve patented a system where avocados have a UV light put upon them with no further human contact after the UV has scrubbed it, with a 99.9% reduction in the bacterial loading on it.
So the UV gets rid of the bacteriological loading, and the avocados have already been prepared to be ripe and ready. We then combine this with modified atmosphere packaging that we spent a year designing with a packaging designer to deal with the respiration rates of avocados; not coconuts, not bananas, just avocados.
That gave a shelf life extension of two days, and when most retailers have an average shelf life for ripe-and-ready avocados of three or four days, an extension to six days is beneficial for wastage and it’s beneficial for turn in the stores.
By extending shelf life you increase the availability and you’ll reduce the stock loss. Add to that the public health assurance, and it’s a winning combination.
And that’s all done in the U.K.?
We do it at our U.K. production site after ripening and before pre-packing. This new process has worked.
When did you officially start this process?
We launched it with Tesco and Waitrose about five weeks ago.
And do you envisage this expanding to usage with other retailers?
Great. Let’s move on to the market dynamics at the moment – are you finding the increased Mexican supply is helping alleviate some of supply constraints that were seen last year?
The market traditionally at this time of the year from January to March is probably at its tightest. We’re very fortunate at Westfalia that we’ve got 52 weeks a year of supply from around the world so we can fulfill our customers’ needs.
However the market is tighter throughout Europe at this point and the prices generally from Spain and Israel at this time of the year are approaching their highest.
So Europe in general has brought in Mexican supply this year to augment, and we’ve found that very useful. The industry as a whole is learning to deal with and ship Mexican avocados.
Does that relate to the logistical differences for exporting to Europe as opposed to the United States which is just next door?
The logistics of sending by truck into the USA are completely different to the logistics and skills required to ship avocados to Europe. South Africa has been doing it for a couple of generations and Peru has been doing it for a couple of decades, so the skills there have been imbued and learned.
We feel that Mexico are quickly learning the skills needed to ship to Europe, which they didn’t need to do until recently dealing with the massive American market on their doorstep.
Is it a similar situation with Colombia?
Westfalia are the largest exporter of avocados from Colombia. We are the number one exporter generally from there. We think Colombia is a wonderful place to grow avocados but it does require once again the logistical skills, the agronomical skills and the management skills through which to manage quality.
We’re actively working with growers and growing ourselves in Colombia to ensure that Europe and the U.K. are well served with avocados.
Do you find any differences between Colombian product and avocados sourced from other parts of the world?
The Colombian fruit on average is a slightly smaller avocado than what you’ll get from Peru or South Africa. One of the useful things about Colombian growing is it relies upon rainfall. There is no artificial irrigation – there’s no need.
But then if you get a drought or excessive rain that brings more vulnerability to your production. Like Mexico’s reliance on a nearby market makes logistics more challenging, Colombia’s reliance on natural rainfall over modern irrigation makes it difficult to control uniformity in the crop.
Perhaps that’s the reason that the avocados generally are a bit smaller.
So this is a traditional period of scarcity. With your production are you looking for new regions to close in some of those supply gaps?
To help out the winter season in January, February and March we’ve planted the largest and what we believe will be the most pre-eminent avocado orchard in Europe. We’ve done this in Portugal but it’s still early days. Our trees are young and obviously there are challenges in Europe from a weather perspective, but we’ve got incredible people involved and incredible technologies so we feel comfortable.
It’s to augment what has traditionally been tight supply. The positive thing about this is that if you go to Malaga where [European] supply traditionally comes from, they no longer have large tracts of land, there are water issues there, and there’s tourism which is taking the water for golf courses. The land is also expensive, so by going to Portugal we have access to a hugely abundant source of fresh water, directly accessed before it empties into the sea.
The water is readily available, the development is not harming anything, and we’ve got the land in an area where agricultural output will be enhanced by what we’re doing.
We’ll have to stay tuned with how those fields develop. Just finally I’d like to discuss a hot topic in the fresh produce industry right now, and that is the push towards reducing unnecessary packaging and moving into recyclable or biodegradable packaging. It’s a tricky issue when you consider the impacts of modified atmosphere packaging and its effects on cutting food waste. What is your view on the topic?
We’re working at this because we wish to help reduce the issue and then solve the issue. We have already reduced the use of plastic punnets and other plastics, reducing our environmental footprint significantly. We believe that we shall be able to incorporate biodegradable packaging. However, that sounds great but biodegradable packaging is quite often still synthetic and it’s not natural. Although it degrades it doesn’t degrade in the optimal manner.
We think we’ll be involved in a two-step solution – the first will be biodegradable packaging which is getting better with the print quality, the clarity, the opaqueness – it’s all achieving what consumers want.
So biodegradable packaging will be the first stage of our journey. The second and final stage will be bio-packaging which is where you move away from synthetics that involve biodegradable packaging and you concentrate on the production of natural starches that will fully degrade quickly.
It’s one of the big pressures of our time and we’re all involved. We don’t want to leave the world like we’ve seen on TV. For our kids and for our future, the development of these technologies is absolutely essential.