Convenience drives sales

Angela and Elliott selecting product
They’re just five but Angela and Elliott already know the health value of greens with a splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Value-added, fresh cut, minimally processed or ready to eat fruit and vegetable products, with salads and salad kits topping the list, are now on a worldwide multi-billion dollar annual sales boom.

Convenience foods are an "extraordinary" driving force for the fresh fruit and vegetable market, according to international speakers at the recent Australasian Postharvest Conference.

In the United States, the biggest drivers of increased sales are value-added, fresh cut, minimally processed or ready to eat fruit and vegetable products.

Salads and salad kits top the list, accounting for $3 billion in sales per annum.

Dr Jim Gorny, from the University of California, Davis, told the 140 conference delegates that "home meal replacements" such as foods combining fresh produce with pasta, meat and cheese in microwave-ready packaging are also a quickly expanding sector.

"They are particularly appealing to consumers who are short on time," he said.

Also big are specially wrapped foods for retailers, such as modified atmosphere packaging for single banana fingers, and new lines of fresh-cut fruit snacks for school lunch programs.

New Zealand’s Horticulture and Food Research Institute also identified the desire of consumers for convenience products as a major new trend.

The Institute’s Dr Roger Harker said that 10 years ago a landmark study comparing fresh fruit with other snack foods found people liked fruit because it was healthy, natural and refreshing.

"The biggest difference between then and now is that people want convenience," he said.

Dr Harker said this could take various forms: new products such as ‘peelable’ kiwi fruit (a longerterm project), fresh cut produce or a product such as ‘ripeSense’.

‘ripeSense’ is a new NZ-developed sensor which can detect levels of ripeness in fruit.

It is expected to be introduced as part of new packaging for avocadoes later this year.

"The biggest opportunity for horticulture comes from the fact people want to eat fresh fruit and vegetables," Dr Harker said.

However, the fact is that fruit and vegetable consumption is falling.

"Industry needs to understand the barriers which are preventing people from eating more fresh produce," he said.

Dr Harker cited one study which found 30 per cent of consumers interviewed had fruit in their homes which had deteriorated to the point that they could not eat it.

"Barriers to increased fruit consumption include that it is seen as too costly, spoils too quickly, that other snacks are preferred and that fruit is not seen as filling.

"A lot of the people interviewed said they were throwing away fruit at the end of the week."

Another problem was that women, as the traditional cooks, were short on time, had unpredictable daily routines, and lacked cooking skills.

"Product quality is vitally important," Dr Harker said.

"However, it is also essential to understand consumer behaviour."

Delegates from 14 countries attended the Australasian Postharvest Conference organised by the NSW Department of Primary Industries in conjunction with Horticulture Australia and the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Biosecurity.