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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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FreshFel’s Philippe Binard
Opportunities And Obstacles
A Fierce Dedication To Increasing Produce Consumption In Europe

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 28, 2022

We’ve had many a vigorous exchange with Philippe Binard, including moments we’ve memorialized in pieces such as these:

Will All Efforts To Boost Produce Consumption Wind Up Being Co-Opted By Other interests?  European School Fruit Scheme IS Under Pressure To Add Other AG Items. Schoolchildren Apparently Also Need Flowers!

Ten Years, Ten Lessons Learned: A Look At The European Produce Industry Through The Eyes Of Freshfel’s Philippe Binard

Pan-European School Fruit Scheme

In Defense Of Cosmetically Challenged Produce

Now, with the whole world’s attention pivoting to Europe and with our preparations to re-launch the post-pandemic version of The London Produce Show and Conference in full swing, we remembered that at the last version of the show, Freshfel held its in annual event in conjunction with The London Produce Show and Conference. 
 
As we prepare for the event this year, we wanted to update some of the priorities Freshfel is emphasizing now. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
 

Philippe Binard
General Delegate
Freshfel Europe
Brussels, Belgium

Q: Thank you so much for carving out time to talk.  It’s always a pleasure, and our readers greatly value your knowledge, perspective, and vision.  Our interview in April 2020  received amazing feedback:

Freshfel’s Philippe Binard Sheds Light On European Produce Industry’s Response To COVID-19

As we embark on a New Year, with a glimpse of promise, but the trials of the global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, the industry has shown its diversified resilience, fortitude, and flexibility to adapt and reinvent itself. Still, moving the dial on overall produce consumption has proven elusive for decades.

What is behind “Freshfel’s optimism for 2022 to progressively fill gaps in produce consumption,” based on the latest Eurostat report and Freshfel Consumption Monitor data/analyses? Second, what strategies and action steps are necessary to thwart the challenges and capitalize on opportunities to increase produce consumption and move the industry forward?

A: I think all of the topics are interconnected. We can take them by group and see how they overlap.

Q: No small task. Why don’t you begin in the context of the two overriding questions and then we can dig deeper as our discussion unfolds?

A: I think that's the best approach. Looking at the Eurostat report and Consumption Monitor, and the strategies to fill the gaps, I think it is important for the sector to have a way we can measure consumption trends across the different states in Europe. This can be challenging because there is a lot of people and [multiple variables], and sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what the real consumption trend is.

So, with our Consumption Monitor, we work based on official data statistics. This has its own benefit, but its own weakness as well, because behind the data there are always gaps, or there might be other elements [distorting/effecting results]. Here we could build a system, where based on the same methodology, we identify the trends in all the different countries and have a consultation on aggregate European levels.

This is what we have done with our Consumption Monitor for more than 15 years, and I think it's a very important tool for us to support whatever our advocacy position, but also to look at the general trends in the sector. We have to see how consumption stands regarding the minimum recommendation of the World Health Organization, which is 400 grams. The Consumption Monitor has consistently indicated over the years that across Europe, we are below the 400 grams on an aggregate basis. We are around between 340- and 360-grams per capita per day, which therefore is insufficient. And normally, from a health perspective, 600 grams would be the perfect intake.

And I think we're connected also with this Eurostat report, which has a slightly different approach, based on interviews on the number of citizens in different countries. They are questioning them about how many portions of fruit and vegetable they eat, and you're seeing from this report that they have three options. You eat nothing, you eat between one to four options, or you eat five. And I think, five is the ideal because that corresponds more-or-less to the 400 grams because maybe one portion is about 80 to 100 grams, depending on the size of the product.

Q: This type of consumer data gathering raises its own questions, but we can touch on that later. How does this data compare to previous years for context? Aren’t these produce consumption goals a decades-old refrain? For instance, Eurostat indicates only 12 percent of Europeans over the age of 15 are eating at least 5 portions per day. The report estimates 55 percent of the EU population eats between 1 to 4 portions and even 33 percent of the population over the age of 15 are not eating any portion of fruit or vegetables at all. Could you elaborate on how this finding is coherent with the conclusions of the Consumption Monitor?

The Consumption Monitor, which was based on figures up to 2019, was complemented by an analysis of the consumption trends in 2020 and 2021 characterized by the COVID-19 pandemic. Figures indicate that in 2019, before COVID, consumption decreased.

Do you see this time as an important crossroads for the produce industry to increase consumption?

A: Whatever you do in terms of methodology for these consumer surveys, it’s the same parameter on all the countries, and with our data based on the calculations adding to production, the volumes which are imported, those that are exported, analyzing by population, and then per capita.. Both reports indicate we don't eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, thus reinforcing the message that we need to do more.

As far as the strategies or the elements that could help us to fill the gap, I think it's very clear that in today's environment, fruits and vegetables have on the one hand, the best possible health benefit among the food category, and the least impacting effect on the environment. So, I think we crossed there two of the main societal concerns to be healthy and to protect the environment, which are incorporated into the fruit and vegetable category.

Q: There is a multitude of stakeholder reports and scientific data to support this contention.. how can we best capitalize on it?

A: Yes, that’s true. I’ve seen a particular science-based report made by Barilla, an Italian food company, not directly in our sector, through its Foundation, The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), which analyzes the environmental, economic and social aspects of food. It uses a double pyramid model, which highlights the very close link between two aspects of every type of food item: foods with the lowest environmental impact are also those recommended by nutritionists for our health. I think this is a very visual benefit of the effects of fruits and vegetables and wine.

Today more than ever, we need to stimulate the consumption of fruits and vegetables for the health of the European population, and for the sustainable benefit, which could help to provide a solution to the current environmental issues, what we call the Green Deal, which is all the measures taken to adjust to the climate change.

THE COVID EFFECT.

A: So that's the general introduction. Now we could go a little bit into the second part of the study data. Of course, both reports in terms of statistics, and certainly topology, have certain gaps, and our Consumption Monitor is going up to the year 2019.

Of course, since then a lot of things have happened. You are aware of all the important changes that have happened because of the COVID pandemic on eating habits, on the concerns of the citizens across the world, and thanks to the resilience of the sector, fruits and vegetables have maintained the availability of the supply wherever it was needed.

The consumption has been on a good momentum because people wanted to get healthy product, which would improve their immune system in the time of pandemic. So, there has been relatively good demand, also because people were staying at home and had a little bit more time for cooking.

Q: How do you assess COVID’s actual impact on fresh produce consumption, consumer lifestyles and eating behaviors, and will these impacts be short-lived or long-term, and if so, how?

For instance, in the U.S. during lockdown periods or concerns of getting infected, or less frequent supermarket trips, etc., consumers tended to stock up on non-perishable foods, and canned and frozen produce items. At the same time, the pandemic showed that people who were obese and immune-compromised were much more vulnerable and likely to die from COVID. This highlighted the correlation in eating a diet rich in produce and health and wellness..

A: You point out that in the U.S., consumers were looking for more latitude in products they could store in case there will be shortages. In Europe, the sector moved quickly, with a lot of discussion about what could be done to secure the supply.

As an organization in conjunction with the European Authority, we have been pretty successful, I must say, to secure the supply of fruits and vegetables despite the difficulties; to secure seasonal workers for the offer, to introduce new safety measures to prevent the proliferation of the pandemic.

And if we compare maybe with some other parts of the supermarket shelf, there had been no disruption. If you take the funny one, well, toilet paper.. I think that might have been the same in the US.

Q: What about the disruptions within the structure of the sector, such as the realignment between retail and foodservice due to the closures of restaurants..?

A: Yes, there are a number of things that have caused disruption..the logistics, which changed in Europe because there was a difference in goods that were essential and which could be maintained, and during part of the pandemic the suspension of the opening of the shops for whatever was not essential.

All of that has been leading to a lot of difficulties, but I think the sector has been very successful to keep those supplies moving. So, we hope that the data we will get for the period covering the pandemic will indicate, indeed, that there's a greater interest for fruits and vegetables. Of course, there were larger sales in the supermarket, but that was also partially accounting for what was not going into foodservice, the canteens for the administration and for the office, in the restaurants or in the hotels, which were partially closed.

Q: How will this all be considered when looking at consumption numbers pre-, during- and post-pandemic?

A: So, we cannot just say, yes, we have increased the consumption, because the sales in supermarket have been booming. We have to deduct from that what was normally consumed away from home, and what was finally consumed at home.

But I think there's been a relatively good interest in Europe at least for products which were fresh. I don't think there's been this feeling of panic of building a reserve of non-perishable food. In the short term, we always have to keep in mind something that is important in the fruit and vegetable sector… that we are a sector which is both from the supply and from the demand side dependent on the climate condition in terms of availability.

So, if there's adverse climatic conditions subject to the supply, if the weather is not accommodating in summer, there is a lower demand for summer fruit like peaches, nectarines, or strawberries. So, I think we depend on the supply-demand condition, but overall, we could say that there's been relatively good interest for fruits and vegetables during the COVID crisis.

Well, we are today, according to our study, at 350 grams of consumption, which is not enough, and that corresponds on an average basis to about 4% for all the European population. For me what is more alarming in the Eurostat data is what is happening with those who are not consuming any fruit and vegetables at all. And in this panorama, I think as a sector what is important is to pay attention to those who are not eating any produce.

Right now, we can put them into the loop and see how we can engage with them, so that they can also become consumers, discover the diversity, learn how to prepare them, look at the convenience that the fruits and vegetables could have, teach them about the possibilities, and I think that's probably the priority.

TARGETING THE PRODUCE-AVERSE

Q: Could you breakdown these segments, and the people who are not consuming any fruit and vegetables? Wouldn’t those people be the most challenging to convert?

A: Who are those people? Well, I think the weaknesses today is mainly around the younger population. Millennials is one of the groups, of course, which is of interest. They maybe like more junk food, but I think this is a segment which is important because these are the people who are from the age of 18 to 30, who are becoming independent, normally going out of home for studying or starting their own lives.

That’s when they start to take the control about their food options, their eating habits, their lifestyle. I think it's quite important to educate them and to communicate about the benefit and the facilities, about the diversity of products.

The second part of this — which may apply to young parents in this group and what is happening with the younger school-age kids — is what is the attitude of the parents in helping their children overcome a certain reluctance among the youngest to eat fruit and vegetables? They prefer chocolate, they prefer sweets, they prefer a lot of different treats, which are maybe less healthy, and that’s important.

Like you have in the United States, we have a program to educate the children at school. This program is currently under review at the European level. Basically, it's a law to have at least one piece of fruit to be circulated, to be distributed per week. This is not enough, because the ideal will be at least to have one piece of fruit to be made available in the school per day. We as an organization will continue to work with the authorities on that.

Q: One piece of fruit per day for children in school, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t sound that transformative..

A: Looking at the complexities, we have a few reasons to be optimistic today..in the beginning of the year with the release of this Eurostat report, and the message there, following another meeting we had with our members in December.

Of course, we can be disappointed that we only have up to 350 grams, and that's many years that we tried to stimulate consumption, and it's never really kicked off to move from a general awareness in the public that eating fruits and vegetables is good. But it’s hard to convert this awareness into a concrete action of consumption, and that's where I think we can be optimistic first, because I think the political and societal environment is positive towards our product.

And certainly, I think, from a sector, we can rely on the scientific community. We can rely on the value of the product. We can rely maybe on the change of policy, because within this European Green Deal strategy or debate, one of the things that is really on the table is how to move to a more plant-based diet.

That’s quite important for several reasons. When we look at climate change and food production collectively, produce is good in terms of all the elements of CO2 emissions. We are also a sector that facilitates segregation of CO2. And, of course, we produce some CO2, but this is completely almost all offset by the production activity.

We are also relatively good on water, and water also will be a big challenge in the future. And when we compare fresh fruit and vegetables to other food categories, we are really to be considered as part of the solution in the climate change debate.

I think that’s where we have reason to believe that a combination of a greater awareness from the consumer, with a change of policy, which could then provide more tools to better position the fruit and vegetable sector into the assortment. For perspective, today, we have the UK, and there are around 460 million people living in the European Union.

If we add an extra portion or 80 grams per day to the diet of these 460 million people for 365 days, you get to a volume roughly of 14- to 15 million pounds. This is the target and, of course, we will not get there in one shot, because that means boosting consumption across the whole population. If we eat 15 million pounds more, that amounts to an increase of 20% or 25% of what we have today, just by adding one portion. So, I think this is something where the sector needs to be following up on..

Moving into this, as we say, it’s a win-win-win situation. It could be winning for the health of the Europeans, it could be winning for the planet, because I think the burden for the planet, of producing fruit and vegetable is much less than producing meat with all the complex chain of the animal supply chain, the feeding of the animals, etc.

I don't want to talk negatively about the other sectors, but it's a fact of life that fruits and vegetables have very good records, and we need to clearly talk about that, understanding that a balanced diet is something that we could incorporate other food categories, including meat, fish, eggs or whatever. But it's true that fruits and vegetables should at least be considered to have half of the plate.

When we want to stimulate the consumption — and you were asking before who are those who are not eating enough produce, like the younger ones and the Millennials, which are also the consumers for the future — what is important to understand is that today between the countries, and within the population, there is a lot of segmentation of demographic attitudes about fashion diets.

There are those who are vegan… others who are vegetarians… others who are flexitarian… those who prefer ethnic cooking. There are people who only want local product; others who want organic, others who want a mixture of everything. It’s a large diversity of consumers, so in our communication, it's important that we try to address all these differences.

PURCHASE PREFERENCES/PRICE/VALUE

Q: Those preferences can fluctuate for some people on a day-to-day basis, and could be influenced by the product characteristics, flavor profiles, availability, and the price, which could play an outsized role in purchase decisions, etc.  

A: For each of these, I think there are taste, texture, convenience, health benefits like vitamins or minerals, which can satisfy the need. But I think our communication needs to be addressing a fragmented consumer base. Of course, in Europe also, when you look between Nordic countries, southern countries, western countries, eastern countries, the profile of the eating habits are a little bit different, but there might be commonalities about the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables.

One point that I've not touched on is where is price in this? And I think it's an important point to make for a number of reasons. Yes, of course, consumers continue to look at the price. It's a very important element. And I think probably today, maybe more than ever before, price will be an important factor, because — and I’m sure in the United States it's the same — in the post-COVID situation, we have the crazy situation of the rise of all the cost in the supply chain.

But also for consumers, all the of living, energy costs, etc.. if your energy invoice is doubling, savings will need to be made elsewhere. So, price will remain, but I think there are many elements that are worth being reminded of.

First of all, fruits and vegetables compared to any other food category, again, is one of the cheapest categories. You can really make your five-a-day servings for about two Euros, which will be more than two U.S. dollars.

Q: We may need to add a caveat, depending on what produce is included in those servings.. at least in New York City, where I live, that $2 total could be a challenge!

A: When we get to the other food categories, being wheat, being ice cream.. many of these products aren’t as cheap as fruit and vegetables. But, on the other hand, everyone can afford, or should be able to afford buying fruit and vegetables. We need to dispel this perception that fruit and vegetables are expensive.

I have a lot of difficulty when it is often said that fruit and vegetables are expensive. If you take the situation in Europe pre-COVID, and in the past 20 years, if you take out inflation, the price is exactly the same [at the consumer level] as 20 years ago.

The cost in the supply chain has increased tremendously, and I think that’s connected to the discussion about sustainability, which we will talk about later. With all these costs in the supply chain for logistics, for packaging, for production input, for energy, whether this will remain sustainable for long. Also, because of this Green Deal debate, and this Farm to Fork strategy that we have in discussion in Europe, whether at the end, sustainability will remain sustainable for the fruit and vegetable supply chain.

I think there we could have questions, but when we look at the evolution, it is interesting to note that sometimes the categories that are growing the most within the fruit and vegetable segment are the most expensive. Anything value-added.. Ready-to-eat items, such as avocado and mango were always more popular and growing fast.

Pineapple, which already had the skin removed, was also increasing. So, I think everything that is linked to convenience, fresh-cut salads, etc.. they were always a bit more expensive, but they were always in demand. So, I think on the question of price, we should look at it from different aspects. We must consider that probably in the future, there will be no harm if fruit and vegetables would be a bit more expensive.  Of course, to absorb additional costs in the supply chain, but also because it may be worth it to pay a little bit more to have a product that may benefit your health rather than to eat junk food.   

Q: One of the issues here, I think also in Europe, is strategizing ways to build margins in a low-margin industry by developing value-added items, such as processed fresh-cuts and convenience products, as well as differentiated specialty varieties that can garner higher price points.

Is this a means to stimulate new demand in wealthier countries, where markets may be saturated? At the same time, looking at the larger issue of increasing produce consumption, these types of products may be unaffordable in poorer countries and economically disadvantaged communities, or perhaps families on tight budgets. Is there a risk of pricing certain consumers out of the market?

A: There is a lot of effort from the sector to look at what the consumer is demanding, to adapt to the convenience, to adapt to food-on-the-go, which requires certain preparation, to adapt to new varieties, according to the evolution of the taste of the consumer. I think people today have been used to more sweet tastes, so some of the new varieties are sweeter to meet with this demand from the consumer.

And yes, there's been a lot of innovation. I think innovation is just starting to make life simple. We have a lot of discussion in Europe about farm-to-fork, but we should not forget that it should also be the other way, about fork-to-farm. At the end, the consumers are explaining what they are expecting. And that will be the good recipe to boost the sale, to produce what is needed.

We debate here in Europe about the role of organic, and the role of local product, and there are some adjustments which are being made.. to see whether we have to move to more organic.

I’m not very sure today the consumer is only interested to buy organic, which is a growing method, when some of the conventional products linked to Integrated Pest Management are almost as good in terms of production methods and in terms of qualitative and safety value.

Safety is not an issue there, because the products we put on the market are safe. But I think we have to look to exactly what the consumer is willing to accept and try to adapt. Sometimes it's easier to adapt with fruits and vegetables, where you can change from one year to the other the crop that you will have.

I think once you have planted trees, you have to cope with the trees for a number of years, but there is definitely a lot of innovation being considered to adapt to the evolution of taste, and to make the business grow with added value and convenience, while keeping the notion of seasonality to have local supply, but by securing the diversity of the assortment and therefore having some complementary products which come from other regions.

A balanced diet in fruit and vegetables should be as diversified as possible, as convenient as possible. While keeping with this issue of eating local and in season, which we primarily do already, we also have to consider the possibility of year-round supply of all the products.

SUSTAINABILITY QUANDRIES/FRENCH BANS, ETC.

Q: Turning back to sustainability, Freshfel urges the sector to build on the environmental, climate and health benefits of a plant-based diet to reach the goal of 400 grams/capita/day.

Increasing produce consumption often intersects or coincides with sustainability policies. However, we’ve reported on numerous cases where regulations or strategies that are designed to help the environment and be more sustainable can be harmful or counter-productive when tracking the impacts of the entire lifecycle of a product..

Freshfel raised supply chain concerns because of the French ban on plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables taking effect for a wide swath of produce as of January 1, 2022, with a time-table for full compliance of others. You say the consequences of the French decree might not only challenge the good and fair functioning of the Single Market but also the quality and safety of products, information to consumers and competitiveness..

USDA issued a report in July 2021: French legislation threatens millions of dollars of U.S. fruit and vegetable exports. This also addressed the ban on non-compostable stickers on produce.

Could you discuss these impacts further from your perspective?

A: Yes. Well, my first remark is that sustainability in the fruit and vegetable sector started a long time ago. It's made popular now by politicians, but I think, already 20 years ago, we were discussing about how to reduce pesticide usage, pesticide residue. There's been the unification of the agriculture practice through certifications schemes, like GLOBALG.A.P. that was already 20 years ago. So, I think this is nothing new for us.

Of course, today, when we talk about sustainability, we have to understand sustainability within its three pillars — taking care of the environment, taking care of the people, and also taking care of the sustainability process, or the economic aspect. It requires a lot of understanding about what is behind sustainability. And if you are a grower, if you are a trader or if you are a retailer, or if you are a consumer, your definition of sustainability might vary significantly.

We have to fix the rules with the costs of things because that's where sustainability is then linked to the mental side of the issue. Today we need to measure a lot of things, such as how do we reduce our carbon footprint, or do we reduce potentially the future of the water footprint? How do we calculate that so we can objectively make a full review of the performance of the product to see whether it can be improved or reduced?

And I think this will cost money for us in our sector. For the moment, we are embarking into an environmental footprint project with the objective of setting up a methodology, collecting the data which will help us to measure the environmental footprint of the fruit and vegetable sector. It’s important that the methodologies would be the same; this aspect is complex because each of the products, each of the varieties, depending on its growing condition, might be different. But I think very soon, if the sector is not doing it, it will become compulsory by legislation. So, it's better to be proactive in this.

When we talk about sustainability, there are different elements.. such as issues with pesticide usage; there is the element relating to food loss and food waste. There are the elements relating to the circular economy with recycling and packaging, things which might be related to the water use, etc.

All of that is very complex, but as I’ve mentioned before, we are fortunate to be in a sector where, for most of these elements, we have a very good record. That’s one of the promises we should have to be optimistic for the future.

Q: How do you reconcile this with the French ban on plastic packaging for certain fruit and vegetables?

A: In this debate, yes, there is also this discussion about removing plastic from the sector. We don't have any opposition to reduce the use of plastic. We know there are a number of negative implications for the planet there. We know it is difficult to have a good recycling system of plastic particularly for the consumer packaging. That's why there was so much discussion into the media, and within the sector.

It's just that this French rule has a number of problems. First, if one market is going with its own rule, it is breaching a little the freedom of moving the product from one country to the other inside the European Union.

That’s important. If you're in the US, and you're in New York, and you cannot bring product into Georgia, or if you cannot bring your product to California, because these states have different labeling requirements or different packaging rules, it makes life complicated, and it is adding cost.

And within a big market like the US market and the European markets, it will be important that the rules will be Pan European. And there, the French went their own way, and now they're launching new labeling requirements and the recyclability of the packaging materials that you use. A special logo needs to be printed on the B2B and B2C packaging material in Italy. So, all of that creates unnecessary added costs, and it will be better to go all in the same direction within the whole single markets of the European Union.

The second element is to go so far with fruit and vegetables, endangering the quality, endangering the effort for preventing food waste of the sector, when other products are not going the same way.

Q: The rule appears inconsistent, exempting certain products from compliance with the regulations, at least for now.. How does that work?

A: This is a critical point. So frozen products, which are packed in the plastic bags can continue to be sold. They don't report the same restrictions there. Or this bottle of plastic for Coca-Cola or for water or for orange juice or whatever, this is not banned, and a lot of other secondary packaging on the shelves of supermarkets are not removed. The rule discriminates and imposes the tough conditions on the produce sector, which is probably one of the sectors that has done most to contribute to the solution.

Q: Ironic on several fronts..

A: Yes, why make it more difficult, why not try to be coherent between the different policy objectives? You want to fight food waste, but in the end, you have to protect the product. The other problem with the French rule was the fast track imposed for introducing this ban on plastic.

It didn't give the sector time to find a solution, and a solution will be there. The sector is preparing, and is fully engaged, but if you have to move from plastic packaging, you need to consider a number of elements to secure that it has the same objectives and the same returns.

STICKER SHOCK

We have to look at all the different elements to find a good solution. I will give you another example with this law, where the industry has been pretty badly affected. In addition to the ban on plastic packaging, France is also banning some of the stickers on fruit and vegetables, which in the United States are quite popular because of the PLU number, which has a functional role.

In Europe it could be used, not so much for PLU because PLU is not so popular in Europe since there are other cashier solutions. But it's important for the brand and can be used for identifying and tracing product, which is important today. It can also be used to segregate organic product compared to others..

The affixing of the non-compostable sticker is not allowed in France. But then they didn’t consider that if you have a product which has the sticker being affixed in Belgium or in New Zealand, they can sell on the French market.

Then they realized that maybe they are discriminating against the French growers, which cannot affix the label to value the characteristics of the French product. The law is actually to the benefit of other products which come from other countries. It harms the French grower when they want to export to Germany, because they cannot affix the sticker in France, even if they export to another market. When at the end, the problem of the sticker is a question of it being non-compostable, because you will put it in your normal dustbin. And the question is, would it completely degrade.

There is a lot of research being done, and one or two companies are very well advanced already to find alternative solutions. But why go so fast to institute the ban without allowing time, and not a big amount of time, maybe two or three years, instead of introducing a law in six months?

And now, the French government is trying to understand that it’s not about affixing a sticker; it’s about affixing a sticker in France, so there’s a lot of confusion. And why is there such a turmoil about this legislation? It’s because it was badly written, quickly implemented without considering all the different actions. And I think it doesn't go at all with the fact that the sector is not prepared to engage in that.

The ban of plastic in France is set with a deadline in 2040. And in fruit and vegetables, they want to have it almost right away in 2022, and at maximum in 2026 to be complete. There are some accommodations for the most perishable products like raspberries or strawberries, which are in little plastic containers for consumers, while an alternative is being considered.

But that's really what has happened with these things, which today is raising a lot of questions because nobody knows exactly what is going to happen, and what is the flexibility on complying, to say that in the first month of the legislation, they will be flexible to allow stock depletion of existing packaging, which is also an issue across Europe.

But I suppose in Europe it's not only because of the French law and the change of policy on plastic. There is lack of ability of other material — carton and paper products are difficult to have because of these anti-plastic things. I think we have to consider maybe a plastic solution is not necessarily the worst if it can be properly recycled or reused or whatever. So, there might be a system to make the things simpler.

At the end, each solution has its problems and its advantages. We are asking France to go very fast, but beyond that, what is worrying is the fact that it is going a little bit too fast, without consultation with the sector about the right solution, and the time to find alternatives. So that's a little bit about the situation regarding sustainability and the environment, which is definitely a big topic on our agenda at Freshfel.

CLIMATE CHANGE CLOUDING THE CONSUMPTION PICTURE

Q: That was very informative. Thank you. Connecting this back to increasing consumption, could you provide more context of how much the numbers have changed over the years. Has it remained pretty much status quo, or have there been years where the produce consumption has increased a lot because of a particular program or other variables?

A: Well, when we look at the trends, in the past five to six years, there’s been a slight increase, so the trend is good. It has not been a fantastic boost, but there's been some increase.

In 2019, our figure is a little lower than the one of the previous year, 2018. This is linked to what we’ve discussed that we remain a sector dependent as an industry on production. We remain dependent on nature. And in 2019, there have been some climate issues, which, by the way, is one of the other big sector concerns that with climate change, or for whatever are the reasons or justifications, there is a lot of climate disruption. Primarily the winter storms in the south of Europe and late spring frosts in the north of Europe have caused increase concern.

I think all of that has been impacting the supply. In 2019, for example, our balance indicator figures are really smaller because the total production of fruit and vegetables in Europe was smaller. And that is not necessarily immediately adjusted by more volume coming from subcontracting the balance on the market. It’s made more on a punctual basis, of course.

If there is a shorter production, which in Europe is completely open depending on the destination, the traders are very wise to identify the business opportunity, but it's an adjustment to completely get to the same total supply balance. But we are in a positive trend, and we hope that in the coming years, and in this decade, I think there will be a lot of opportunity and reason to boost the consumption.

You were asking what is the takeaway that we could have from the discussion… the key takeaway is that we are part of a product that has many health and environmental benefits, which is part of the solution when we consider the global challenge that we have.

We have a product that has a large diversity of choices, both in the fruit and in the vegetable categories. As a sector, we need to convince the consumer to make the right choice at the moment they are at the supermarket shelf. We have to make sure the products remain attractive, and that we educate the consumers on how to prepare them at home, and make sure that these products are also available, and more and more convenient when they are on the go to do that.

I'm sure we can find ways to take the most of this momentum today, but if we slack in the sector, and if we will not be able to reach this consumption objective now, we will never do it. We definitively need to move above the minimum recommendation, because, as I say, it is good for the planet, it is good for the consumer, and it will be good for the sector, so this is a win-win-win situation, which is a good message to take away.

PROMOTION STRATEGIES

Q: Okay, great. There was one more topic area I was just hoping to get your thoughts on. In your goals to increase consumption, do you consider the breakdown in the portions of fruit versus vegetables as they relate to health and wellness?  

A: Well, I think for us the general objective is to reach the threshold, and as we say, each consumer is different, is unique. Each consumer will have his or her own specifications and eating habits, whether that it for healthy eating or unhealthy eating. What is important is the objective to create an environment, to create a moment to accept this challenge of reaching the 400 grams goal.

We just terminated a promotion, Follow me to be Healthy with Europe!, which was a social media campaign to invite the Millennials to take the challenge of addressing this gap and go into the 400 grams. There has been a lot of interaction with the followers of the campaign, with the whole of the influencers.

We had a lot of interest not only by people who were convinced, but also, we had a lot of reaction from people who needed convincing, who were captured into that campaign, and were positively responding. They learned that maybe it’s not so complicated to cook, and you’ve given me some ideas I didn't have, and to go towards new products.

Of course, it was not a consumer survey, but it was indicators about attitude. I don’t have exact numbers off hand, but the number of people we reached in the campaign was massive, and the engagement that they had with our agency was impressive. So, I think we did collectively well, and I'm glad that we made this campaign.

We're getting involved in another one, which will be starting in around two months, working with French and Irish partners, where we will try to demonstrate that life can be better with fruit and vegetables. It’s important to never stop because we are in a food environment where we must compete with heavily branded product, which has huge margins compared to the fruit and vegetable sector.

Our competitors therefore have a lot of capacity to promote their product. We are generic product in most of the cases, so it is important we use all the opportunities to secure and pass on our message.

Consumers today are aware that eating fruit and vegetables is good for their health. But we still have to do more to take this awareness and translate this attitude into concrete action, when they are in the shops and when at home, to purchase, prepare and have fruit and vegetables on the table, and at least half of the plate. So those are the challenges we have in front of us. It's a lot of work, and it's not easy to change behaviors.  

Today, when politicians look at sustainability, they are ready to engage in a solution to effect climate change, and they are aware that having a more plant-based diet is part of the solution.   

POLITICS AND FUNDING

Q: Where does produce fit within these legislative initiatives, and the allocation of funds?

A: That’s an important question.  When we look concretely, what are the tools that they put on the table? The answer is… it's relatively limited. I think so far, yes, we have been granted doubling of our budget for promotion. So, like in the US, where you have special programs from the USDA to promote product, in Europe we have the same kind of thing.

Two or three years ago, we managed to get a dedicated line for the budget. It was 10 million Euros for promoting fruit and vegetables. And I think that was good, because normally we are included in a package or in the food basket, where it is a competition between the different sectors. We have the guarantee of having a dedicated line just for fruit and vegetables. This year, because of the debate of the Farm to Fork and the Green Deal, we have almost 20 million Euros.

But that's one of the only measures that I see. And if you want to change, I don't think you will change everything by spending only 20 million Euros. Just to put this in perspective, the total turnover of the fruit and vegetable sector is 200 billion Euros in Europe, more or less. And out of that, we spend maybe 2-3 percent at best in Europe for promotion — maybe 500-600 million Euros are spent on all categories of promotion and marketing.

Our competitor in the agri-food sector has a turnover of over 2 trillion Euro, and they spend 10% on marketing, which means that our competitor spends as much of the total turnover of the fruit and vegetable sector for marketing.

Q: That's a disparity that seems impossible to overcome.

A: Exactly. So that is something we have to live with. And, of course, we are happy to have a subsidy in this 500 or 600 million Euros. We have about 20 million Euros which are EU-funded, which is nice, and we welcome that. But I think there are other things that need to be changed in terms of labeling, in terms of maybe having more programs for the most deprived population, to encourage them to have positive eating habit.

There are more things that could be done to the health of the food system to improve the functioning of fruit and vegetable supply chain.. maybe to invest more money into innovation for convenience of fruit and vegetables.


Q: Aren’t there other funding streams to push for through the different EU legislative proposals related to sustainability and health? Is the fresh fruit and vegetable sector getting its fair share? In the US, big agriculture lobbyists yield a lot of power in Congressional funding allocations..

A: When we look at the overall package of the climate change legislation, which is the Green Deal, the number of tools and financial measures made available are completely disproportional in a negative sense, compared to the challenge. And the fact that fruit and vegetables are part of the solution, more than any other food category.

I think in Europe in the agriculture policy, 80-85 percent of the CO2 emission comes from the animal sector. So, fruit and vegetables are a very small part of the percentage. But 80 percent of the EU budget is also going to the animal sector, so that's also another problem… the agriculture budget is going to the category which maybe most contributes to the global warming. We have to change that.

Q: Is there a way to get funding through health initiatives because fruits and vegetables have been medically linked to lowering morbidity rates, and reducing risks of diseases such as cancer and problems related to obesity and diet? Especially, now with pandemic..?  

A: Yes, what you say is fine, and legislation can help, but in Europe it is very difficult for our sector to voice the health benefits. We cannot make a claim, such as eat a lemon because it's full of vitamins, or eat a banana because it has more fiber or whatever.

We cannot do that, because the process for nutritional claims is very difficult, and we are generic products, and nobody really is taking the burden of going through the process. And the process is very complex also, because if you take apples, you will have to do it for Gala and then for another variety.

We are in the sector, which again is in a battle compared to food products that are manufactured, where you know exactly the recipe, and when you are the owner of the brand and the recipe, you can go through the process and take the benefit of the value of your product. But for the produce industry, it’s very difficult, so that's one point. The health claim legislation in Europe is even harder than the one in the United States. In the U.S., it’s a little more flexible; it's not easy, but it's more flexible. In Europe, we don't really take the benefit of that.

Q: Is there an opening to get more funding through the EU policy to fight cancer, which the EU says is one of its main priorities in the health domain? There isn’t much attention paid to fresh fruits and vegetables..

A: There is also a plan here to beat cancer, and I think that's a very valuable thing because cancer remains one of the non-communicable diseases most affecting the health of the population, together with the heart disease. But when you look at this EU policy on cancer, if you look at what’s included in infection prevention, it's regional health things, and that lifestyle and healthy diet could contribute to prevention with no more than this.

I think it's very difficult for us to manage. It might be partially a failure of our lobbying activity, even if we have never rested on our laurels to really try to convince policy-makers that we were a vocal actor in the platform for diet and physical activity. Some years ago, we began developing a health platform with the European Commission, a kind of code of conduct to identify all the areas, where we could take action to stimulate the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

So, all of that has been done, but at the end, in the concrete action from policy-makers, they are always very shy in taking action, which might need to be a bit more important priority. If you want to really change attitudes, you need to take action, very similar to what happened with the plastic packaging ban. You need to have the tools that accompany the ambition they have with the policy under the Green Deal debate.

And I think that’s probably what’s missing, it's ambition without the cost for the sector. But at the end, I don't think they take the benefit of all the opportunities that the fruit and vegetable sector could provide if it was significantly boosted and supported to increase the diet. And it's not only just to get to 400 grams, but it's probably to go to 600 grams. We don't talk about 15 million pounds, we talk about 30 or 40 million pounds that will be needed, which is a completely different story.

There are a lot of things we can do, and that will certainly keep us busy during the whole year. So, we need to see how we can contribute as an organization. We have a small organization; we are not this big International Association, like the merged PMA and United now in the United States. But I think Freshfel is a body with a strong support of all the sector, and I’m sure we can still do a lot of nice things to boost the category and to stimulate the consumption.

Q: You’ve certainly provided a thought-provoking discussion to that effect. How would you like to conclude?

A: I think what I've discussed about Europe is equally valid for the United States. We’re in a global challenge as a sector. I’m very glad to be in the fruit and vegetable sector, not to be in the meat sector, because we can be authentic, and we don't need to be defensive.

It’s fantastic to be in a sector where, at the end, you can tell people you can eat our product without moderation. In the wine sector they will say, drink but drink with moderation. With meat, eat but eat with moderation. We can say, ‘eat fresh fruit and vegetables to your heart’s content,’ and not be censored in saying so. As a sector, we need to find a way to convey that message to the consumer.

******

Philippe always has his finger right on the pulse of the issues challenging the produce industry in Europe and around the world.

We’ve built our speaker programs both at The New York Produce Show and Conference and The London Produce Show and Conference around the kinds of concerns Philippe has explicated in this discussion. In years to come, we will invite Freshfel back to London, but in the meantime we will help the association and the industry wrestle with issues so we can help build a more prosperous industry for us all.

Come join us in London. You can register right here.

Grab a stand to promote your own product right here.

You can also be a part of the renewal of the London Produce Show and Conference by sponsoring a component… if you would like information, let us know here.

In any case, we thank Philippe Binard and Freshfel Europe for helping to frame the opportunities and obstacles that the produce industry confronts as we emerge from the pandemic. We hope to see you in London!

 

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