“Perfection” now just the starting point for Australian fruit and veg

Australian fruit and vegetable growers have been warned by a visiting US horticulture expert that while the quality of their produce is “better than ever before”, the demands of the average consumer now starts at “perfection”.

In Australia this month to meet with local growers, Rabobank’s California-based senior fruit and vegetable analyst Dr Roland Fumasi (pictured) said the list of qualities that buyers were looking for in fresh produce continued to grow and had changed markedly in recent years.

“Consumers now expect the quality of their fruit and veg to be 100 per cent perfect, 100 per cent of the time,” Dr Fumasi said.

“They expect it to taste amazing, look good and to be extremely convenient and they want this all year-round. And that is just the starting point.”

Dr Fumasi said to gain customer loyalty, growers had to appeal to the deep-seated values of consumers.

“When you look at the buying habits of the middle-class consumer, not only do they now want a high-quality product – they are also looking for staunch food safety, transparency regarding production, sustainable farm practices that leave a lighter footprint on the environment and assurance that farmers are looking after their employees.

“And while these consumer demands are increasing, farmers are now also producing their fruits and vegetables in a more complex environment than ever before, with rising labour costs, water issues, changing environmental policies and government red tape.”

With challenge comes opportunity

While acknowledging the challenge of delivering “perfect” produce, Dr Fumasi insists there is a lot of opportunity to be had for farmers intent on meeting these demands.

“While this trend for high-quality, ethically-produced food is most evident in developed markets, it is also increasingly being seen in developing markets,” he said.

“Along with the rise in the global population we are also seeing a massive increase in the world’s middle class, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Within the next 10 years or so, it is predicted that 66 per cent of the world’s middle- class population will live in the Asia-Pacific and it is in this group of people where we see the biggest growth in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Dr Fumasi concedes that food safety and consistent quality are still the biggest drawcards for Asian consumers willing to pay a premium for Australian produce but that their demands are likely to catch up with western markets very quickly.

“When you look at developing Asia, we are seeing the market catch up at an incredible rate, so it is only a matter of time until there is a major sector of this market that has the same demands as local Australian markets,” he said.

Online shopping drives transparency

According to Dr Fumasi, the retail trends of grocery shoppers in the US have become increasingly fragmented and the same trend is being witnessed in Australia, particularly among millennial buyers.

“The younger generation seem to be very comfortable purchasing from a variety of retail sources including traditional retailers, farmers markets, and value retailers such as Costco and of course buying online,” he said.

“In the US we have grocery websites that have gained good traction because of their reliability, convenience, traceability and for their ability to share background stories on the produce they sell.

“At the ‘click of a button’ not only are you able to select from 20 different tomatoes, but you can also see where they were grown, how they were grown and by whom, along with nutritional information and recipe ideas.

“Customers are also able to leave reviews, so if the product isn’t up to scratch it won’t be long until the negative reviews start pouring in.”

Dr Fumasi said while big retailers were starting to understand the importance of telling the backstory of the produce they sell, it was also up to farmers to be proactive in engaging with their customers.

“Australia has an excellent reputation for producing safe, delicious, attractive produce and that brand equity is a good platform to build a conversation with customers,” he said.

“Being able to be as open and transparent as possible with an audience and giving them an insight to exactly who you are and what you do, will not only gain loyalty for your brand but is likely to reflect positively on the industry as a whole.

“Today’s consumer has an extensive list of demands from producers and the technology to find the information they want at their fingertips, so it is important that the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is proactive in engaging this consumer and telling its story, before someone else does.”

Responsible for analysing the North American fresh fruit and vegetable industries, Dr Fumasi combines a background in agribusiness research with international market development and finance experience in the agriculture industry.