The rise of vegetable-and fruit-based substitutes for starch and animal protein-based foods could leave fresh-produce growers behind, Imperial College London emeritus professor of food marketing David Hughes has warned.
He told the recent fruiterers conference: "In my life I have never seen so much activity in vegetable-based foods," he said. "'Big Food', like 'Big Soda', is in trouble so they are buying up vegetableand fruit-based start-ups. But traditional fresh-produce industry will face competition from these. The challenge is to use our 'fresh halo' to show we have a better offer. But we have never been good at promoting the health benefits of fresh produce."
Meat consumption in the West "is at best static", he said, pointing out that semi-vegetarian Flexilicious sausages, now stocked at Marks & Spencer, "count as one of your five-a-day". The BOL brand supplies vegetarian ready meals, Del Monte offers vegetable noodles, cauliflower rice has become a supermarket staple and salad supplier Florette has diversified into smoothie kits. "Plant-based milks are even in the Consumer Price Index."
The trend is happening across the developed world, he added. "In Canada, $1bn has gone into pea processing in the last six months." The common denominator of these is a combination of apparent healthiness with convenience, he said.
"In the UK over 40% of meals are eaten solo. People don't buy ingredients any more, they buy 'components'. In future we will eat more on the move and less together, so it has to be convenient or you won't sell it. Already they are building apartments in California with no kitchens."
He cited blueberries - which are "still far from saturation" - as an example of a fresh product that ticks both boxes. "Consumers are interested in growers. I see it everywhere with brands like (kiwifruit supplier) Zespri. British Summer Fruits have also shown how to package good news. It's there to be done."
British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward said: "If it expands the space that we can work in, that's positive for the industry. The salad industry has already had EUR140,000 to encourage consumption, but we haven't been good at assessing that spend. Will it still be there post-Brexit?"
On the apparent opportunity to add value to fresh produce, he added: "We have worked with growers on this but in the end they didn't fancy the risk of getting into an activity they didn't understand, and preferred to stick to primary produce."
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper said: "My concern is an ethical one, that a move from fresh to processed means a loss of nutritional value. Clearly what we produce needs to be as convenient as possible, especially for single eaters. But right now manufacturers are working to take the nutrition out of food."
City of London Corporation director of markets and consumer protection David Smith said: "A hard Brexit would be a huge opportunity to market our own produce more aggressively, while higher prices would help British growers." Ward said: "That's a point we should make to Government."
Smith added: "Over the last 30 years there has been a loss of domestic science in schools so we have generations who can't cook and don't understand anything about food. We need to get the kids to influence the parents."
BerryWorld head of brand and marketing Charlotte Knowles said: "Our generation is trying to spend more time at the table and to make children understand where food comes from. But scratch cooking may become more of a special occasion."
G's Fresh managing director Sharon Affleck said: "Online shoppers don't have the same external stimuli and their baskets are significantly healthier," adding: "A focus on British will be key in a post-Brexit world."
Chris Rose, commercial controller at fruit-growing producer organisation Asplins, said: "It's easy to put a Union Jack on an apple, less so a product with multiple components." Capper said: "There has been some smoke and mirrors around provenance but consumers won't now have any of it."
Barry Evans of Cardiff Business School claimed that "companies with corporate social responsibilities will be driven by health and social issues like obesity, simply because they don't want the bottom line to be hit".
But Ward added: "The industry risks missing an opportunity to join up nutrition with fresh produce. Daily intake of 550g a day is 150 million tonnes of fresh produce a year. But there seems to be an unwillingness to join these together at Government level." Capper agreed, and asked: "Why are we spending £5bn tackling obesity without improving diet?"
Comment - Catering sector view
Giving a view from the catering sector, Tony Reynolds, managing director at specialist supplier Reynolds, said: "We have a massive role to play in conveying to consumers the role of foods that are seasonal, healthy and different.
"We see celebrity endorsements, particularly with a health message, coming through in the eating-out market. Right now there is a fast pace of change, especially in London. Fresh ingredients will always have a place but kitchens are being de-skilled because of the cost of labour."