Innovation key to future of potato sector

The economy has dented consumer confidence but added-value potato products that give buyers convenient meal options continue to drive retail innovation, according to speakers at the first ADAS/Syngenta Potato Conference, held in Peterborough.

Potato Council corporate affairs manager Maria Ball told the 250 delegates at the November event that, with the economy set to recover at a slower rate than after previous recessions, it was "a great time to show how versatile and convenient potatoes are".

She added that, according to latest market data, the recent decline in organic sales was slowing and warned growers that retailers' ongoing promotions must not be allowed to devalue potatoes in the marketplace.

This was underlined by Nick Cole, founder of market research company Oxford Partnership. He warned that the industry was in danger of losing younger people to competitor carbohydrates such as pasta and rice. "The potato's heartland is the older consumer," he said. "Potatoes are not pushing the right buttons in terms of being quick and easy to cook."

Cole also pointed out that changing cooking trends, such as the increasing use of steaming and stir-frying, presented opportunities and threats. The challenge, he said, was to "fit in with busy consumers but keep the empty nesters".

McCain Foods representative Graham Finn, who continues to consult for the company in a working retirement, pointed out that nine of the top 10 potato consuming countries were in Europe. In the UK, 53 per cent of all potatoes consumed are in a processed form - a trend that looks set to continue.

Retail sales of potatoes account for roughly two-thirds of the market volume. "The majority of retail potatoes are sold in their fresh state," said Finn, adding that while fresh potatoes account for 68 per cent of the volume sold, they represent just 31 per cent of its value.

In contrast, snacks and crisps make up just 10 per cent of the market by volume but represent 46 per cent of the value offer.

McCain's range provides more than "100 variations on a theme", said Finn. But despite the company's commitment to use only UK potatoes in its chip range, other businesses have not pledged to do the same. Overall, 53 per cent of processed potato products in Britain come from Europe.

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