The State of the Global Fresh Produce Industry

fresh produce 1At IFPA’s Global Produce and Floral Show 2023 in Anaheim California, the fresh produce industry gathered to network, learn, inspire and to discuss the state of the fresh produce industry. Globally, the industry faces many challenges at present as weather extremes, geopolitical tensions and the ever-decreasing and more expensive workforce is affecting players along the fresh produce supply chain. Luckily, with the numerous technological innovations and exciting new products being developed, the future remains full of opportunities for the fresh produce industry.

Navigating between greater uncertainty and higher quality
Weather extremes are the talk of the town

The many weather extremes affecting supplies and prices around the world, were one of the main topics of discussion at the IFPA2023 (International Fresh Produce Association’s Global Produce and Floral Show 2023). Some of the many fruits impacted by recent weather disruptions are blueberries, table grapes, and stone fruit. While visitors of the show were offered a range of the finest berries, blueberries were absent in many US supermarkets during the month of October. After years of growth, Peru’s shipments have declined significantly in the marketing year 2023/24 due to a warm winter that negatively impacted yields. While this is one of the many outcomes of El Niño, in the longer run, the industry expects continuing growth in blueberry exports.

The quality bar for berries has been raised
As the speed of demand growth in the main markets – the US and the EU –slowed down in recent years, quality has become more important. At the show, various blueberry players showed their new bigger blueberries. Jumbo-size berries are expected to quickly gain market relevance, not only because of consumer preferences, but also due to efficiency gains and reduced production and harvesting costs. For strawberries, quality was also a feature at the show. Most striking were the various branded greenhousegrown strawberries exhibited. In contrast to Europe, greenhousegrown strawberries are a fairly new phenomenon in the US, gaining ground quickly.

Greenhouse tomatoes as the stars of the vegetables show
Greenhouse-grown produce was prominently present at IFPA2023. Mexican, US, and Canadian companies, many of them with facilities or suppliers in all three countries, showed various new varieties, snack-size vegetables and packaging. North-America’s largest greenhouse player, Sunset, showcased so-called “Umami Bomb” tomatoes in Japanese-inspired packaging. While another player, Windset, showed sweet snack tomatoes called “yum yums” in red/pink candy-style packaging.

Nature Fresh featured its dark-brown “Yoom” tomatoes, of which the crown of the tomato is star-shaped. Prepared packaged salads were also present in all shapes, sizes and packaging, including various high-tech indoor-farmed leafy greens that are currently facing a reckoning.

fresh produce 2Automation is gaining steam
In the long term, it does seem that leafy green production and processing will also be more automated, despite the current challenges for high-tech grown greens. Just like many other fruit and vegetable industries, the costs and availability of labor, as well as more limited water availability and/or more stringent sustainability requirements are challenging. At the same time, consumers demand an ever-higher quality. Automation can be a solution for some of these issues and we saw many interesting demonstrations of this at IFPA 2023. Automation solutions ranged from robotic harvesters for strawberries and tomatoes, to extremely advanced sorting equipment for fruits, to technologies for assisting pollination in avocado, blueberry, and almond production. According to some industry sources, the payback period for some robotic packaging or sorting equipment is currently less than one year. Also presented were various solutions to reduce food waste, including fruit coatings to increase shelf life and an in-retail scanner to determine the ripeness of avocados, preventing consumers from squeezing the fruit until it is unsellable.

Nuts at your convenience
With California at the centre of global almond and pistachio production, it was no surprise that tree nuts were omnipresent at the produce show hosted there. As demand is no longer outpacing supply, suppliers are putting more effort into marketing almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, for example by adding all kinds of flavors and offering various pack sizes. Visitors of the show were bombarded with flavored pistachios, from very sweet to extremely spicy. We also saw lots of unshelled pistachios, as the convenience trend seems to be unstoppable, even in a year with strong economic headwinds.

Exotic species are mushrooming
In the mushroom space, suppliers are also seeking differentiation. Mushroom suppliers showed broad assortments of exotic mushrooms at the show, both conventionally and organically grown. Different sizes, colors, and packages of oyster mushrooms, shiitake, enoki-take, and maitake were exposed. According to the USDA, the sales value of commercially-grown specialty mushrooms went up 3 percent in 2022/2023 YOY.

Floral sales dependent on purchasing power
A sector that is usually very much related to economic conditions is the floral industry – at least, during ‘normal’ circumstances. In the very abnormal situation during the Covid pandemic, floral sales reached highs, both in the US and Europe. In the course of 2022, consumers’ purchasing power came under pressure due to inflation. For US retail, Circana data on the 52-week retail sales of flowers (until August 13, 2023) showed a 3.2% decrease in units yearon- year. As prices went up, sales increased by 2.9% YOY. Flower wholesalers at the show were nevertheless optimistic about the forthcoming winter, with good sales opportunities for All Saints Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and – of course – Valentine’s Day.