The Belgian fresh produce trade believes UK buyers are missing out by not sourcing more from their northern European neighbour. At the same time, suppliers are aware of the need to rethink their product range for markets like the UK where expanding local production and evolving consumer trends have shifted procurement requirements. Produce Business UK visited the country last month to learn more about the opportunities for UK retailers, importers, wholesalers and foodservice operators
“Belgium used to export a lot of leeks and tomatoes to the UK and now the main product is strawberries, but even though we’re not increasing exports the UK market is still very important,” begins Dominiek Keersebilck, commercial director at grower cooperative REO Veiling, which exports 45% of the 250,000 tonnes of produce it markets every year.
“The UK itself has become a well organised and professional grower of many products [traditionally supplied by Belgium] and [the shift in trade] it’s a reflection of the trend among British shoppers to support locally-grown produce more.”
See the end of this article for a breakdown of Belgium’s current fresh fruit and vegetable trade with the UK.
Nevertheless, Keersebilck’s colleague, market manager Tom Premereur, feels Belgium could supply “a lot more” to the UK, and claims the trade could further profit from Belgian exporters taking the initiative to reconsider their product range.
“We are seeing a lot of products from Holland entering the UK, whereas we, as Belgian growers, can offer the same products and we’re even closer to the British border,” he points out. “We’re planning to put more energy into visiting the UK market so buyers can learn about all of our possibilities.”
Premereur says he is “certain” UK buyers are missing out by not sourcing more fresh fruits and vegetables from their close European neighbour. “I once attended a conference regarding Belgian produce exports towards the UK and the main message was: ‘we know you have the products we want, but we have forgotten about you’.
“Belgium is very close to the UK and [at REO alone] we have 1,200 producers who are happy to supply the UK. Belgium just needs to re-think its palette of products for the UK market.”
A special seminar and panel discussion organised by VLAM (the Flanders Agricultural Marketing Board) and held in Brussels a year ago also came to the conclusion that Belgium has the potential to export more fresh produce to the UK and Ireland, particularly speciality items like tomatoes.
During the event VLAM, together with economic representatives of Belgium in the UK and Ireland, discussed with the UK’s Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) future collaborations and possibilities to tackle the market.
“It’s clear that Belgian fresh produce should be able to deliver more top quality products to the UK and Ireland,” a spokesperson for VLAM said after the event. “This seminar was a first step and possible strategies will be up for discussion at our next meetings with exporters, which we hold every two to three months.”
UK buyers should be aware, however, of the growing interest and competition for Belgian produce in other external markets. With the Russian market still closed to Belgium and other European exporters, Keersebilck says Belgium is looking with increasing intent at cementing its position in Europe, as well as developing other destinations like Canada.
At the same time, the East Asian market is growing and becoming more interesting for Belgian suppliers too. In particular, China is opening up to further Belgian products, most recently for pears, following a seven-year negotiations feat. Efforts are also underway to access Brazil, Mexico and Chile, as well as the US market for Belgian apples and pears.
When it comes to vegetables, Premereur sees plenty of potential in the UK for Belgium’s open-air products like celeriac and cabbages, in particular. “We export a lot of these products in various packaging types, such as in nets, loose in big bags or carton boxes,” he explains. “I’m certain Belgium can supply these products [to the UK] cheaper than Holland because we are closer.”
What’s more, he says the growing multicultural population in the UK presents opportunities for products traditionally used in East Asian dishes, as well as items like big beef tomatoes that are preferred by Russian expats.
While Belgium’s leading vegetable markets remain its neighbouring countries – France, Germany and the Netherlands – Philippe Appeltans, secretary of the Belgian Association of Horticultural Cooperatives (Verbond Van Belgische Tuinbouwcoöperaties or VBT) affirms that the UK is still an important player.
Although a small market – tomatoes and leeks are the main Belgian vegetable items exported to the UK currently, according to Eurostat/VLAM figures – Veerle Van der Sypt, general secretary of trade association Fresh Trade Belgium, believes there are avenues for other vegetables too. “In vegetables, we see UK opportunities for Belgian (bell) peppers, courgettes and aubergine,” she notes.
On the fruit side, the UK is already proving to be an increasingly important destination for Belgian strawberries and blueberries. Read this PBUK article on the potential for Belgium to further complement UK berry supply. And Van der Sypt points out that pears remain popular, even though there has been a downturn in Belgium’s apple trade with the UK.
“Under the influence and the impulse of British supermarkets, domestic production of fruit and vegetables is rising in the UK because there is a growing market for locally-grown produce,” she claims. “In apples, for example, British production is expanding and in the future the UK will depend less on imports from other European Union countries during its own production season.”
Indeed, Miguel Demaeght at cooperative and auction BelOrta estimates that just 4% of all Belgian apples go to the UK now. “Braeburn apples used to be important for the UK market, and volume is still being sent but the UK has said it can supply more of its own from domestic production,” he says.
When it comes to pears, however, Van der Sypt says production is more complex and therefore the UK isn’t experiencing the same development or growth rate it has achieved with apple production. “For Belgian Conference pears the perspectives are good, and the UK is already an important market,” she asserts.
The UK is among the three largest markets for Belgian pears, according to Demaeght, and absorbs 10% of exports, mainly the Conference and Doyenne varieties. “We know a lot of Belgian Conference pears go to the UK,” he says.
“In 2014 we exported more pears than in the previous years. The UK already takes a nice share of Belgium’s pear exports, and there is still the possibility to grow but, of course, there is always a level of saturation.”
On that note, Appeltans at VBT adds that UK buyers could help Belgium to further strengthen and develop the Conference pear market by supporting supply with promotions. “Pears do well when combined with educational marketing on how to eat the fruit,” he says, “because you can eat Conference pears crunchy, or when they’re soft and sweet once ripened.”
Other opportunities & obstacles
Outside the realm of Belgium’s own fruit and vegetable production offer, Van der Sypt highlights that the Port of Antwerp in the north of Belgium also presents a platform for the increased distribution of fresh produce into the UK.
“Antwerp is already an important gateway for exotic imports into Europe,” she notes. “Belgium imports huge quantities of bananas and other exotics or even apples from overseas, which are re-distributed across Europe.”
At the same time, however, there are various market factors to consider, according to Van der Sypt. Local sourcing has become a popular trend in the UK, and the fluctuating exchange rate of the British pound versus the euro will always influence exporters’ decisions. Furthermore, since the Russian ban on EU imports there more players on the UK market, which makes competition harder, while the share of the wholesalers in the UK has shrunk as direct supply to supermarkets has grown, which further intensifies competition.
Premereur at REO Veiling accepts that the interest in buying local is a factor Belgium must consider when planning its future in the UK. But while he admits it’s a trend that is difficult to overcome for overseas exporters, he says Belgium still has competitive advantages.
“We can only counter this [trend] by showing great flexibility when there is a shortage,” he proposes. “For example, from REO a buyer can easily get a high volume of leeks in one day and the [auction] clock [selling platform] is the perfect instrument for that. Plus, we will always supply good quality. Belgium’s advantages are its flexibility, big volumes and specialism in open-air production.”
Furthermore, Premereur suggests REO Veiling’s quality label Tomabel, which is not well known in the UK at this moment, could serve as a point of difference.
“Tomabel is a brand for high quality products that offer something more,” he explains. “In tomatoes, we select those varieties with better flavour but also a little bit less yield per m². These great products are delivered in a nice packaging so consumers recognise the label very easily. Tomabel is already a big success in Belgium and France, but we’d need to take some time to promote it in the UK.”
For Belgian cooperatives like REO Veiling, he also recognises a “big opportunity” on the UK foodservice market – an often unexplored market avenue that is, in fact, thriving.
“In the last few years REO has specialised in foodservice deliveries with seasonal contract prices,” he explains. “This started eight years ago and has expanded very quickly. Other countries, like the big cutting industries in France, are signing contracts with REO – for corn salad to decrease the risk of a bad harvest in one region, for example.”
One things that’s for sure is Belgium’s network of 4,500 organised, innovative and responsive growers (who belong to less than 10 producer organisations or marketing associations) will continue to keep one eye on the UK and its shifting trade requirements in a bid to keep up with the products and formats buyers require.
“If a product is approaching the end of its life cycle, growers here in Belgium are quick to adapt and diversify,” notes Premereur. “Lettuce used to be our largest product, for example, but now we do 50% of what we used to. Leeks, tomatoes and strawberries are the most important products out of the 65 items we market [at REO], and tomatoes-on-the-vine and courgette are growing.”
Breakdown of Belgium’s current produce trade with the UK
Source: Eurostat and VLAM
- The main fruits exported by Belgium are pears (11%), strawberries (8%) and apples (7%).
- The UK is the fourth-largest market for Belgian fresh fruit in value terms, albeit some way behind the major receivers of Germany, France and the Netherlands.
- The UK received €88,392-worth of Belgian fruit sendings in the January to October period of 2015, or 5% of the nation’s total export value, which was up from the 4% recorded in each of the previous 10 years.
- The UK is the largest market currently for Belgian strawberries. In the January to October period of 2015 the UK received 11,015t; representing a 23% share of the export total, just ahead of the second-biggest destination, France (with 22%). This was up from 20% during the full year of 2014 when 8,476t were shipped to the UK.
- The UK ranks among the three largest markets for Belgian pear exports (after the Netherlands and France). In the January to October period of 2015, the UK received 10% of the export total (or 24,628t), down from 32,097t in 2014.
- The UK is the fourth-largest market for Belgian apple exports but falls well behind the Netherlands, France and Germany. In the January to October period of 2015 the UK received 6,327t or 3% of the total volume, down slightly from 6,421t in 2014 (4%).
- In the vegetable category, Belgium mainly exports tomatoes (33%), followed by peppers (9%), cucumbers (8%) and leek (6%).
- The UK is the fourth-biggest destination for Belgian vegetables, albeit some way behind the leading receivers: France, Germany and the Netherlands.
- In the January to October period of 2015, the UK absorbed some €42,280-worth of vegetable exports from Belgium, or 6% of the export value total, up slightly on the €37,942 recorded for 2014. Sendings have been stable for the last seven years.
- The UK is the fourth-largest market for Belgian tomatoes, although much smaller than France, Germany or the Netherlands. In the January to October period of 2015 the UK received 10,748t of tomatoes from Belgium, down from 11,492t in 2014, and represented a 10% share of the sendings.
- The UK is the fifth-largest market for Belgian leek exports. In the January to October period of 2015 the UK received 3,026t, or 5%, down from 4,964t in 2014 (7%).