Retailers' cutbacks are impacting on the prompt delivery of British top fruit to supermarket shelves, where displays are also slipping in standard, according to English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow, who intends to put these concerns to retailers shortly.
He told HW: "The part of the supply chain that is in the hands of the retailers is seeing delays which is having an affect on fruit quality. People think the major multiples work like well-oiled machines but they are cutting back on staff, while those that remain are under a huge amount of pressure, leading also to a lowering of standards of merchandising - there isn't the necessary scrutiny that there was."
He pointed out that these are both areas which suppliers have up to now left in the hands of the retailers - "the attitude has been they are on one side and we are on the other", he said, but added: "It's important to work with them on this to devise and implement solutions."
EAP's attention has been drawn to the problem "through a number of complaints from customers writing to us, emailing us or getting in touch through Facebook or Twitter, so one gets a feeling for the situation", Barlow said.
"Some have sent photos of displays the quality of which has been worrying, including product misidentified, some ludicrously so. I wouldn't claim what we have is comprehensive but we are taking steps to build up a more accurate picture - we can measure when product has left cold store and when it has arrived on the shelf. We need more robust data before we have discussions with the multiples."
He added that he hoped for a positive engagement. "It's costing the retailers. We want a shared recognition of the problem throughout the market - then we can say, 'we can work with you to improve things - it's in your interest as well as ours'."
Giving his predictions for the 2016 crop, Barlow said: "We will see further advance of Gala production of about 5 per cent, along with newer varieties. Braeburn will stabilise, Cox will decline a little, as will Bramley's, where further grubbing will take place."
He added that moves to increase UK fruit exports in the year ahead are likely to be hampered by exchange rates. "The Middle and Far East are open to exports of English apples - levels are low right now but increasing. But the strength of the pound makes it difficult to get a positive return."
And he warned that the broad-spectrum contact herbicide Glufosinate-ammonium could be banned, adding: "We are lobbying hard for it to be retained."
While the industry has made "enormous strides" in fine-tuning application of crop protection products, developing alternatives, and otherwise ensuring fruit is free of residue, "we must continue to encourage research into alternative methods that minimise use", he said.
He suggested that higher labour costs under the national living wage, due in April, "will lead to greater use of automation in packing, storage and distribution, such as driverless forklift trucks", adding that technology in the field to monitor crops "is already in some orchards and will gain momentum".
He said; "The technology is there. There have been phenomenal changes over the last five years. Drones and automated harvesting are not there yet but it's just a question of time. But there's only any point if it reduces costs."
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