Many European countries that had imposed strict containment measures for two months have been relaxing those measures for almost two weeks now. Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom allowed shops to reopen long before France. It should be noted that some European countries have never taken strict containment measures, such as Sweden. These relaxation measures are accompanied by strict recommendations such as the permanence of barrier gestures (wearing a mask, washing hands and physical distancing). For the time being, Germany has opened its border with the Netherlands and only French border residents are allowed to enter under certain conditions. Germany plans to open its borders completely on 15 June with France, Switzerland and Austria. The Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) announced on 15 May that their borders would be opened only to nationals of these three countries. It is the first European region allowing free movement of their inhabitants within a region.
A study commissioned by Max Havelaar for Opinon Way on the purchasing behaviour of French people during the confinement period reports that 45% of French consumers prefer local or regional products, 39% products originating from France; 29% want to consume organic products, 15% products without packaging or with limited packaging, 14% organic and fair trade products, and 10% totally fair trade products. The types of products bought during the confinement are: more vegetables than before (16%), more bananas (11%), more apples (11%); products imported from the South are very much consumed (chocolate, coffee, bananas, rice) and bananas are preferred by 82% of the French. After the period of confinement, more than 80% of the French believe that they will favour responsible consumption; 50% would like to switch to a world where food consumption is 100% local. (FLD, 5 May)
Many European countries have closed their street markets because barrier gestures between customers could not be applied. During these weeks of closures some market traders have set up telephone order taking and appointments for delivery. For example, Borough Martket in London introduced “Bourough’s Market drive-through”, a new “click and pick up by car” service, allowing customers to order food and basic necessities online and pick them up without leaving their car in a specific time slot, thus avoiding the creation of traffic jams.
New Covent Garden has developed a project, launched this week, to deliver baskets of mixed fresh fruit and vegetables to homes. A study reveals that 21% of British people have eaten more healthy food during the confinement than before, 18% have experimented more, and 61% want to broaden their horizons by trying exotic fruit and vegetables. (FPC Fresh Talk Daily, 12 May)
Fresh Plaza (12 May) reports on likely changes to the retail environment in Italy. “The processes that existed before the Coronavirus have now been accelerated. It seemed obvious to all that the model of the large hypermarket, disconnected from residential areas, was in crisis with regard to food expenditure, especially fruit and vegetables. On the other hand, the wholesale markets, which for many were outdated, proved their vitality.”
During the period of containment, food prices have risen across Europe. Fruit and vegetable producers have faced labour supply problems (fewer seasonal workers). Disruptions in the supply chain have been linked to higher transport costs and difficulties in importing produce. In France, the consumer association UFC-Que Choisir noted an average 9% increase in fruit and vegetables between early March and early April: +12% for bananas, +9% for apples, +10% for lettuce, turnips and tomatoes.
In Germany, food products have also seen increases of +10% in one year according to AMI (agricultural market consultancy firm). Vegetables rose by almost 30%; cauliflower and broccoli, generally imported from Spain and France, were more expensive.
According to Consumer Watchdog, there was no significant increase in fresh produce prices in the UK.
Authorities in several EU countries are working on measures to allow seasonal workers to work on farms in the coming months. These measures, requested by national producer organisations, are necessary to ensure a regular supply to the markets.
The UK is heavily dependent on overseas seasonal agricultural workers. Each year, an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people are needed between April and October to plant, pick and pack produce. The majority of workers come from Eastern Europe. Thus, in the context of the crisis caused by the pandemic, the British Growers Association (BGA) is asking the government to relaunch the seasonal agricultural workers pilot project. Between 2,500 and 10,000 non-European workers were expected to enter the UK to help pick and pack fruit and vegetables. The BGA is asking that the quota cover at least 25,000 workers from this autumn.
In France, despite online recruitment platforms on which nearly 300,000 volunteers have registered, the need for skilled labour remains. The cherry, melon and apricot harvests are about to begin and the main producers’ union (FNSEA) has asked the authorities to authorise the entry of foreign seasonal workers from the Schengen area. The union needs 87,000 seasonal workers for May and has already drawn up a protocol to ensure the health safety of employees at work.
In Germany, the producers’ unions have obtained permission for the entry of 80,000 seasonal workers in April and May under strict hygiene conditions. They provide additional support for national workers.
In Belgium, the professional organisation Boerenbond estimates that there is currently a shortage of 15,000 to 20,000 seasonal workers in the agricultural and horticultural sector. In May and June, there is an urgent need for planting and harvesting.
In Finland, local farmers need up to 20,000 seasonal workers a year to help them plant and harvest, and more than half of them come from Ukraine. Since the beginning of the year, the Finnish government has allowed only 1,500 foreign seasonal workers to enter the country, 80% of whom are Ukrainian.
Italy also faces a shortage of seasonal workers. The government has just taken an exceptional measure by allowing migrants and illegal workers living illegally in the country to work. A work and residence permit has been granted for a period of six months.
For the past two months, packaging has been at the centre of concerns both for professionals in the fruit and vegetable sector and for consumers. The barrier measures imposed to fight against COVID-19 have led scientists to raise the issue of the lifespan of the virus on certain affected surfaces. Fruit and vegetable consumers have had to change their habits either by washing fruit and vegetables purchased more often, or by preferring packaged products or reusable bags.
As a result, manufacturers of plastics for food packaging have seen their business expand. In France, ELIPSO, the professional association of plastic packaging manufacturers, has carried out a study among its members: “Plastic packaging companies mobilized and united in the face of the Covid-19 crisis”. The vast majority of companies (91%) said they were able to meet the demands of the food industry and other sectors. More than 50% of food packaging suppliers have seen their business grow by 20–30%, in particular due to higher sales of pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. For consumers, pre-packaged products are said to be less likely to carry contamination than bulk products. Is this a return of plastic to the fruit and vegetable shelves when some supermarket chains have committed to reducing them in the coming years? Carrefour recently announced that it has committed to eliminating all plastic from its fruit and vegetable departments by early 2021. In Italy, consumers have also demanded more plastic packaging as it offers greater protection, hygiene and preservation of fruit and vegetables, and speeds up purchasing. Carton Ondulé France, the national organisation of cardboard manufacturers, saw its business grow due to strong demand from the health, hygiene, pharmaceutical, e-commerce and food sectors.
Changes to upcoming trade exhibitions
Macfrut 2020 goes digital: From 8 to 10 September 2020, Italy’s international showcase for the fresh produce industry will offer business opportunities through a digital platform that will bring together buyers from all over the world, opening up new international markets for the sector. This innovative project makes Macfrut the first digital trade fair for the fruit and vegetable industry (Fresh Plaza, 12 May). All visitors, from all across Italy and from all over the world, will be able to access and participate in this three-day virtual trade fair by using a personal device (PC, tablet or smartphone).
Fruit Attraction adapts its format: Fruit Attraction 2020, co-celebrating from 20 to 22 October with Flower & Garden Attraction and with the new Fresh Food Logistics project, will incorporate new elements into its format with the aim of serving as a fulcrum to promote the reconstruction of international trade relations within the fruit and vegetable sector (Fresh Plaza, 23 April). New provisions include services such as a thermal solution for measuring body temperature that will be incorporated to help monitor people accessing the site. Fruit Attraction hopes that visitors from many countries will be able to attend the event in person, while others will participate digitally through a new B2B-eMeeting service. The specialised programme of congresses, conferences, debates, company presentations, etc. covering the entire value chain will also take place in a mixed format, and will begin virtually with the “Virtual Fruit Forum” on 14 October, for the entire Fruit Attraction international community. There will then be daily digital events with high-value content up until the start of Fruit Attraction on 20 October, when the on-site events will begin, including the Biofruit Congress that will be held on 22 October.