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"The discussion is now coming back to sustainability on packaging": Q&A with Origin Fruit Direct on EU grape market

As the table grape industry undergoes numerous changes and developments, The Grape Reporter recently spoke to Corne van de Klundert from Origin Fruit Direct to get his view on what the future of the industry looks like, the importance of branding and new origins that will help the category grow.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


How has the European table grape industry evolved over the last few years?

The biggest change for the table grape industry over the last number of years has been the change in varieties. Ten to 15 years ago there were probably three or four white seedless commercial varieties and probably three red seedless and one black seedless, but today I think most supermarkets have at least 15 or more varieties that they are allowing specifications depending on taste, berry size and quality in general.

Variety development has been helping to create more consumption of table grapes, but now it's a matter of making sure the consumers have continuous availability of those varieties throughout the season.

Some of the origins like Peru and South Africa are quite advanced with new varieties, but other origins are still quite far behind. India, for example, is still very much set in the old varieties for white seedless grapes, but the country plays a very important role in about three months of the season here in Europe and that means for those three months, there are hardly any of the new varieties available on the shelves, so I think there is still a lot of work to be done.

There is not really big growth in the European market as it is a very mature market with few places left where there is still a lot to be done for grape consumption and kilograms per capita. In the last 10 years, grapes have received a lot of competition from other categories predominantly soft fruits like blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.

Are these new varieties helping to increase consumption and sales, or are they instead maintaining relevancy for the grape category amid rising competition from other fruit categories?

Well, I think that with some of the new varieties we are probably in a position to push back and start gaining some market share over the berries again because the taste of the varieties is really outstanding. In broad lines, however, you could say that the development of the new varieties and the push back to the other categories have simply kept the status quo. If we would have kept with the old varieties then I'm sure that the grape category would have been reduced due to competition of other categories.

How do you see consumer access to newer varieties in Europe?

As I mentioned, South Africa and Peru are quite advanced with the development of new varieties and there's a lot happening in the field, but if you look at the percentage of those fruits arriving in the market, it is still quite limited, specifically in the European continental market. The reason is that markets like the U.S., the UK and to some degree China, are picking up these varieties first with very nice premium prices for the growers.

Europe traditionally is a little bit behind on that trend and that means that consumer access for those new varieties is still developing. If you look at the forecast for production out of Peru and South Africa for this coming season, I'm sure that there will be a lot more of those varieties available for the consumers in Europe but we are not at the stage yet where the new varieties are the dominant varieties on the shelves.

I think in the European season it is happening faster, especially in Spain and some parts of Italy and Greece, as there is the development of new varieties and there are some of the more premium retailers in Europe and the European production season seeing the new varieties on the shelf which is helping them a lot. But for overseas seasons the access is still a bit limited.

Do you see new supply regions emerging and playing a more important role in the future? 

Well, what we see developing all over the world is that the new varieties are mostly varieties that are ripening at a later stage, so they take a little bit more time to get to harvest. That means that whole windows are starting to move a few weeks and particularly in the Northern Hemisphere in California, Spain, Italy and Greece but also in China there's a lot more production of grapes happening later in September, October and even sometimes into November which has an effect on the overseas seasons because certain origins are now being pushed into a later window. Currently, there is hardly any space left for imported grapes because it is all local production at the moment.

I think that countries like Peru, South Africa, India and to some degree Egypt will continue to play a dominant role in the exports of grapes and some countries that are becoming too expensive I think will see a reduction in production volumes which it's a combination of becoming too expensive but also because of climatic reasons. Countries frequently being faced with cold spells and rains, which is the case in Chile, become increasingly unreliable to deal with.

What do you see happening with European retail purchasing trends?

Well, I think during the pandemic people have been very concerned about hygiene, and retailers certainly were keen to have fruit packed in plastic punnets or heat-sealed punnets. As the pandemic in Europe slows down and a lot of governments relax certain measures, the pressure on hygiene is not as high. The discussion now again is coming back to sustainability of the packaging, for example, packing in paper or carton is becoming more and more popular so we are seeing that. And at the same time we see movement into heat-sealed punnets which have less plastic in grammage and also have a nice branded display, where a punnet with a paper label is not ideal for recycling.

And what about branding trends in Europe?

There might be a little bit more room for producer branding but it is still quite limited what is happening on that front. Going forward I don't know to be honest whether there will be branding. Products like Zespri Kiwifruit or Pink Lady apples come from the same producers during a long season where they can control the quality and volumes that are being sold for the brand. For grapes to create continuity and supply in a particular brand it requires a lot of seasonal management.

For example, a variety is on the farm probably in August for a number of weeks and then it needs to be moved to the next farm or the next production area, so as to maintain an absolute strict level of quality for a brand in the overseas season is not so easy. I'm not saying it's impossible and I think it can be done, but the next thing is that the retailers will have to give space for a brand.

Taking all of this into consideration, how are you feeling about the future of the grape industry?

Well, I'm a very positive person so I am very optimistic about the grape industry from the perspective of the development of the new varieties. Within grapes what we currently do with white seedless, red seedless and black seedless grapes there is quite a variety of different product lines and there are possibilities for differentiation contrary to the berry category. A blueberry is a blueberry - and of course there are also different varieties - but for the consumers, they don't see the difference, and I think for grapes there is more room to combine and work with different colors and taste profiles. This differentiation will make consumption of grapes more exciting for consumers and I think there is definitely a lot more room for developments on the shelf.

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