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Sustainable Production and Consumption Of Vegetables on Front Burner in Brussels

By JOHN M. SAULNIER, QFFI Chief Editor & Publisher

Attributes of frozen and canned products in spotlight at PROFEL Conference, which addresses issues ranging from health and nutrition to price trends and CAP reform.

The advantages and benefits that frozen and canned vegetables, as well as those distributed in jars, have over so-called “fresh” produce sold at supermarkets and served in restaurants are many. From extended preservation of high nutritional values and long shelf life, to year-round availability, affordability and reduction of food waste, these and other subjects were examined in depth at the Seventh Conference of European Vegetable Processors held recently in Brussels.

More than 150 executives representing the EU’s leading processed vegetable companies and marketing organizations attended the event, which is organized every two years by the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processing Industries (PROFEL). Moderated by this writer and Nigel Thorgrimsson of Ardooie, Belgium-based Ardo, the sessions were sponsored in part by industry vendors, among them: Buhler-Sortex Ltd., Urschel International, BEST, Syngenta Seeds, SCA Packaging and SKT Industrial Refrigeration.

Mella Frewen, director general of the EU Food Industry Confederation, set the stage by kicking off the conference with a presentation entitled “Food Policy challenges 2030.” She expressed confidence that the processed vegetable sector and the food and drink industry as a whole will do its part to innovatively and responsibly meet future supply requirements in a world where population growth is forecast to double to 12 billion by the year 2100.

But the formidable challenge will require a radical redesign of the global food system, which Frewen said is currently “failing on sustainability.”

She cited three major issues that should be dealt with urgently:

Agriculture currently consumes 70% of total global water withdrawals from rivers and aquifers, many of which are regarded as over exploited;

Of 11.5 billion hectares of cultivated land on the planet, approximately 24% has been impacted by human-induced soil degradation;

Agriculture directly contributes 10-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Noting that more than one billion people are chronically undernourished, Frewen commented: “A hungry world is a dangerous place, and recent food price volatility has thrown an additional 44 million people into extreme poverty. Agriculture is the most powerful tool to reduce hunger and worldwide poverty…But the food system is not working. Something is going wrong.”

She called for the application of “new knowledge to maintain and increase crop yields,” and for the export of expertise and know-how to Africa and other regions where food production output and distribution enhancement is required.

The food and drink sector remains Europe’s single largest industry, pointed out the director general. Its 310,000 companies employed 4.5 million people in 2010 and rang up over a trillion euros in turnover, of which exports accounted for 58.2 billion euros. This made for a category trade balance of 1.1 billion euros.

“However, we are losing our competitiveness to major agriculture producing countries, among them India, Brazil, Argentina and China,” stated Frewen.

The director general said that her Brussels-headquartered organization – which counts among its membership 26 national food industry federations, 26 European sector associations, and 19 major companies producing in Europe – will continue to work hard to promote environmental sustainability, diet and nutrition issues, food safety and R&D.

“Our mission is to help proactively develop an environment in which all European food and drink companies can compete for sustainable growth, meeting the needs of consumers and playing their part in delivering the objectives set out by the EU 2020 Strategy,” she declared.

Little Waste with Frozens

While noting that more than 90 million tons of food waste are generated every year in the European Union, Inger Larsson of Bjuv-based Findus Sweden was pleased to report that the frozen food industry contributed very little to the pile. In fact, she said, frozen vegetables actually play an important part in the reduction of food waste.

“Unusable parts, already taken care of at the source, are used as animal feed, returned to the field, or utilized to make bio-gas,” stated the sustainability director. “There are no storage losses in the food chain, no product deterioration, and minimal waste in stores.”

Furthermore, continued Larsson, there is minimum waste at home as the ready-peeled and cut products are generally distributed in packaging that enables consumers to manage portions by “taking just as much as you need” and returning the rest to the freezer.

The Findus Group, which ranks as one of Europe’s largest frozen food and seafood companies with 6,000 employees and £1.1 billion in annual sales, “intends to be a world leader in responsible sourcing, sustainable agriculture and quality food manufacturing,” said Larsson.

As for the nutritional value of processed vegetables, she cited new research findings published recently in a Swedish magazine which proclaimed: “Frozen is often more nutritious than fresh.”

This was a topic addressed in greater detail by Professor Frédéric Depypere, a member of the Bioscience Engineering Department at Belgium’s University of Gent.

“The perception is that fresh vegetables are more nutritious than processed vegetables, but does science back this?” he asked.

Citing a PROFEL study commissioned in 2006, he said that both fresh and frozen vegetables supply nutrients to consumers in a comparable way, though levels vary by variety.

Depypere also drew attention to a VLAG project conducted from 2004-08 which studied the nutritional values of processed vegetables from field to plate. Washing some vegetables results in a reduction of vitamin C potency, he said, but with others there is little or no loss.

“Blanching may cause further reduction in nutritional value, but after freezing vitamins are retained for a year or more,” stated the professor.

Interestingly, the beta-carotene present in carrots was found to be little affected by industrial processing. Furthermore, after one week fresh vegetables were seen to lose more nutritional value than processed greens.

“Overall, frozen and fresh deliver vitamins in a nearly equal way. There is no big difference between them,” he remarked.

Depypere’s observations would seem to concur with the conclusions reached by the Center for Food Innovation at Sheffield Hallum University in the United Kingdom, which suggest that it is time to discard the mistaken belief among some consumers that frozen means inferior.

IQF peas, other vegetables and fruits are generally frozen soon after being harvested, which maximizes preservation of vitamins and minerals. Contrast that with the fact that long delays in getting so-called “fresh” produce from the farm to retail outlets – which can range from weeks to months in some cases – often lead to a deterioration in the level of beneficial compounds.

For example, up to 77% of vitamin C in green beans is lost during seven days of unrefrigerated storage. At the same time there is evidence that cooked frozen green peas contain higher levels of beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A in the human body, than cooked fresh peas.

Generic Promotion Campaign

Zoetermeer, Holland-based Marja Slagmoolen, senior project manager at the Fruit and Vegetables Agency in the Netherlands, reviewed the goals and strategies of the European Program for the Generic Promotion of Processed Vegetables. The comprehensive public relations promotion in France, Belgium and Holland targets households with children as well as health professionals and members of the press.

“Our communications objective is to improve the overall image of canned and frozen vegetables so they are perceived as tasty, healthy alternatives to fresh produce among consumers eating the recommended number of servings that constitute a healthy diet,” said Slagmoolen.

Now in its second multi-year cycle, during the program’s first running from 2006-09 consumption of frozen and canned vegetables in France reportedly rose 3%. The goal of the 2010-13 campaign is to push the per capita intake needle to the following levels: France, 4.5 kg frozen and 10.8 kg canned; Belgium, 4.5 kg frozen and 6.0 kg canned; Holland, 2.1 kg frozen and 4.6 kg. canned and glass containers.

A budget of EUR 7.3 million has been allocated for the initiative, financed 50% by national/regional governments with 50% matching funds coming from the EU. France has the biggest share at EUR 6 million, followed by Holland, EUR 780,000, and Belgium, EUR 564,000.

A combination blitz of TV, internet and print advertising in ladies’ and health-oriented magazines was launched in the spring, and a website ( offering recipes and interactive educational activities has gone online.

Additionally, posters, brochures and newsletters promoting consumption of processed vegetables have been distributed in the offices of health professionals.

Sustainable Agriculture

James Young, head of agriculture for the Feltham, United Kingdom-headquartered Birds Eye Iglo Group, talked about reducing the environmental impact of processed vegetable production.

“Sustainable agriculture is productive, competitive and efficient while at the same time protecting and improving the natural environment and conditions of local communities,” he said.

Birds Eye, which reunited with Findus in Italy last year and rang up EUR 1.6 billion in sales, produces frozen ready meals, fish, poultry and red meat dishes as well as vegetables. Products are marketed under the Findus brand in Italy, the Birds Eye label in Britain, and the Iglo brand name in Continental Europe. Frozen vegetables generated 24% of total turnover during 2010.

The production of peas in the United Kingdom and spinach in Germany and Italy are major activities for the company, which has embraced functional biodiversity exploitation, is reducing the use of fertilizers and seeking alternatives to synthetic pesticides.

Furthermore, Birds Eye has launched a “Forever Food” program – in which peas and spinach are core components – designed “to ensure our consumers have food to eat forever.” It operates under a 70 point sustainable agriculture structure embracing critical criteria ranging from pest control, energy and water management, to soil fertility health maintenance and ethical sourcing practices.

“We as an industry must balance future demand and supply sustainably to ensure that food supplies are affordable,” said Young. “Adequate stability in food supplies must be ensured, and the most vulnerable must be protected from volatility that does occur.”

The goal of ending world hunger by providing access to food supplies is achievable, according to Young.“This recognizes that producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all,” he stated.

Big Spread in Retail Prices

Franz-Josef Lange, Nürnberg, Germany-based international strategic insight director for Gfk & Kantar’s Europanel, which tracks retail purchasing patterns among consumers, provided a detailed report on cost comparisons between so-called “fresh” and processed vegetables. His analysis focused on developments in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland.

While average retail prices for fresh vegetables were clearly higher in 2010, suppliers of processed vegetables were not able to cash in on the upward trend.

“The price gap was so high against frozen and canned products, with fresh spinach costing roughly double the price of frozen, that those price moves have only a small impact on consumption,” said Lange. “However, during the high season fresh beans are not more expensive than frozen products, at least not in Belgium and Germany.”

Prices for frozen vegetables, which increased in 2008, fell last year. At the same time, canned prices were flat.

There was a “heavy price hike” of 9.3% for fresh vegetables in 2010, following two years of lower prices, reported Lange. Zeroing in on green beans in particular, the gap between fresh and frozen was 1.80 euros per kilogram, with fresh beans selling on average at 3.65 compared to 1.85 for frozen. Meanwhile, canned beans were going for 1.36.

Prices for frozen vegetables are by far the cheapest in France, while Belgium is the most expensive country for canned products, pointed out the Europanel director. France ranks as the highest vegetable consuming nation per household, in both processed and non-processed segments, with annual intake in kilograms as follows: frozen, 10.5; canned, 26.2; fresh, 84.

The top five frozen vegetable preferences among the French, representing 37% of market share and cumulatively rising by 5.5% in tonnage to 277,332 during 2010, were: green beans, 12.1%; cauliflower, 8.1%; broccoli, 7.2%; spinach, 5.1; mushrooms, 4.1%.

Household consumption of frozen vegetables is similarly high in Belgium, at 9.2 kilograms, compared to 13.3 for canned products. Frozen tonnage rose from 39,000 to 43,000 from 2007-10, while value increased from 93 million to 104 million euros. During the same four-year period canned volume fell from 63,000 to 61,000 tons. However, sales value increased from 115 million to 131 million euros.

Spinach and broccoli are the most popular frozen vegetables among consumers in Belgium, respectively claiming 20.1% of the market. Sales of the “Top 10” frozen vegetable types, which accounted for 42,661 tons last year, were up by 6%.

The price spread between fresh and frozen spinach in 2010 was 4.06 vs. 2.27 euros per kilogram, compared to 3.81 vs. 2.15 in 2009.

A kilogram of frozen green beans fetched 2.38 last year, compared to 3.61 for fresh and 1.71 for canned. Frozen has lost 1.5% market share since 2008, compared to a 1.8% slide for canned green beans.

Dutch households consume 4.8 kilograms of frozen vegetables per annum, compared to 12.8 kilograms of canned product. Prepared spinach and natural spinach are the most popular frozen offerings, ringing up 45.5% of sales between them. Total volume last year was 35,293 tons, up 4.2%.

In Germany, consumption of frozen vegetables per household was put at four kilograms, compared to 11.2 for canned products and 61.9 for fresh vegetables.

Frozen volume and value have been decreasing since 2007, noted Lange. Tonnage declined from 164,000 in 2007 to 158,000 last year, while value dropped from 406 million to 394 million euros.

During the same period, canned vegetable tonnage dropped from 459,000 to 439,000, while value advanced from 541 million to 563 million euros.

Ready-to-eat buttered vegetables and stir-fry vegetables are the most popular frozen offerings in Germany, accounting for 11.6% and 10.9% of the market, respectively. Ranking third is raw vegetable mixes at 8.4%, followed by raw peas at 7.5%.

The “Top 10” frozen vegetable sellers in the nation, weighing in at 158,376 tons and accounting for a market share of 70%, were up 2.7% in volume last year. That compared with 438,902 tons (+0.2%) for the “Top 10” canned vegetable varieties, which rang up 81% of sales in the category during 2010.

Lange offered price comparisons which showed fresh spinach rising from 2.61 to 2.98 euros per kilogram over the past four years, while the price for frozens rose from 1.51 to 1.57, and canned advanced from 1.20 to 1.38.

During the same period, the price of fresh green beans slipped from 2.95 to 2.93 per kilogram, while frozen climbed from 2.26 to 2.44, and canned advanced from 1.02 to 1.15.