Tomato Conference focuses on trends

The tomato sector has seen all kinds of changes over the past twenty years. What will it look like by 2020? What opportunities are there to improve production? What about marketing and sales? The international conference 'Tomatoes, trends towards 2020' has been looking for some answers.

Job done!
The three-day conference (13 to 15 April) set up at the initiative of the overarching cooperative LAVA attracted a lot of attention. “We received a very wide range of visitors. There was an extensive target group, the likes of the seed merchants, tomato producers, retailers, research institutions and auctions. With more than 200 attendees, we are justified in claiming a successful initiative”, says Ilse Ceulemans, head of marketing at LAVA. “We received positive feedback, with regard both to the programme offered and the opportunities for networking. Everyone was able to forge some useful contacts. The discussions between speakers from the private sector and the growers were definitely a huge success.”

Market-based research
Discussion forums with speakers from various European production regions explored quality, sustainability and innovation. The focus was split between scientific research and marketing and sales of tomatoes. The main principle for the scientific side was that research needs to continue to evolve in response to the wishes of the market. A sample of the range of subjects: fruit quality in tomatoes, developments in the 'EXE-kas', application of micro-algae in tomato cultivation. Presentations of innovative production systems were also given. The 'Proefcentrum Hoogstraten' addressed the challenge of the search for the optimum growing technique under lights.

Global production
On the commercial side, speakers from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Spain and Italy reported on current tomato production and consumption in the EU and globally. “Global tomato production is running at some 130 million tons”, explained Philippe Binard of Freshfel. “Europe ranks at number two, producing about 16 million tons, with Spain and Italy being the biggest producers. The Netherlands exports the most tomatoes (931,000 tons) and Germany imports the most (817,000 tons). European tomato exports have been under serious pressure since the Russian boycott.”

National and international retailers shared their views on the segmentation and differentiation in the shops. Bas Tramper from the buyers' organisation IPL reported that UK consumers prefer the 'ordinary' loose tomatoes, and show a limited interest in specialties. “Within the specialty segment, it's the cherry tomatoes that are doing well. We also don't want to make the range too big, so that consumers can make better choices.” Tramper expects the focus on round, tasty tomatoes to continue in the years ahead.

Most important vegetable in the trade in fruit, vegetables and potatoes
“Almost 8% of total sales of fruit, vegetables and potatoes at Metro Cash & Carry is tomatoes. Special tomatoes are becoming ever more important”, reported Ward Verberck of Metro Group. They apply a special approach to sales per country, per season and per client segment. “We look to see what each client wants, and we supply to order. We also think it is important to buy in products direct from the growers, to ensure maximum freshness.”

Differentiation needs
Metro has split the needs of the customer into three groups: basic needs, differentiation needs and premium needs. “When it comes to differentiation needs, we distinguish between authenticity, innovation and fun. Authenticity might be something like heritage tomatoes and traditional seasonality. Innovations include things like tomatoes which do not leak. In the 'fun' section, we come up with new products that taste good or perhaps have an unusual shape. In the future, the number of kinds of tomatoes in our range will go on increasing.”

Growth in specialties and organic
Arne van Aalst, general director of Prominent (Netherlands) expects to see farms getting even bigger in the future. “This will mean increased growth in specialties and also organic tomatoes are becoming more important. Growers will also make more use of sustainable energy sources.”

Constant innovation
Matthew Jones of Reynolds (UK) reports that for food-service customers, price is still king when it comes to tomatoes. “We are seeing, though, that flavour, quality and colour are becoming increasingly important”. Reynolds, along with growers, is also exploring new and special strains. “Customers expect to be able to choose by taste or by season, for example. The tomato sector has to keep innovating.”

SanLucar tomato concept
SanLucar has developed a concept of dividing the tomatoes into four different segments. “Many people don't know which tomato is best for which purpose. We have found that this needs to be clear immediately when the tomatoes are bought. The four categories are: pampering, snacking, cooking and salads. This is also how they are presented in the supermarkets.”

Paying for added value
According to Jan Schockaert, head of the fruit and vegetable department at Colruyt (B), tomatoes are an important vegetable within their total greengrocery range, in terms of both volume and turnover. The range of tomatoes has also expanded to an average of 13, and in peak season, this can even be as high as 18. The volume of smaller tomatoes has risen in recent years compared to larger tomatoes. “When it comes to developments, I am seeing more and more innovation in terms of flavour”, he reports. “Consumers are willing to pay for added value. In the future, I expect that there will be even more of a focus on health, sustainability and flavour. Priority will also be given to enjoyment.”

Thinking about the market
The past twenty years have seen the market evolve from a standard product towards comprehensive differentiation. Where will the focus be in the future? The idea of a single type of consumer has long been overtaken. The retail side wants to respond to different types of consumers with specific products that meet the needs of those various categories.
 “The retail side has a clear mission” according to Ilse Ceulemans of LAVA. “The consumer is a major link in the market chain, and producers must take account of the consumer's wishes. Quantities and products need to be tailored to what consumers want. The auctions and growers need to keep a constant finger on the pulse of the market. Growers need to know who they are growing for. Quality and flavour are essential criteria in the selection of new strains of tomatoes. But one concern is also that the range of tomatoes must not become too broad.”

Food needs to be fun
“Trend watcher Adjiedj Bakas has been really taken by surprise”, reports the head of marketing. “He maps clear social trends: individualism and perception. The baseline is 'Food needs to be fun'. 'Fun' means tasty, attractively shaped, a pretty colour, and so on. What it boils down to is that first and foremost, food needs to look pleasant and appealing. Adjiedj Bakas says that the big consumer story here is now about perception.”

When practice and research meet
On the last day of the conference, there were visits to auctions, farms and experimental centres, described by Ilse Ceulemans as “An excellent opportunity to see how practice and research fit together. There was considerable interest, and the visit to BelOrta auction and Hoogstraten Cooperative were a real success. A tour round the Experimental Centres was a useful addition with a view to future scientific developments.”

The June edition of Flandriamail Professional explored Belgian tomato production and the vision of Dirk Van Der Plas, president of Hoogstraten Cooperative and a tomato grower himself.


About LAVA