12 June 1998

Belgian threat to processors

VEGETABLE processing in the UK is threatened by a concentration of the industry in Belgium.

"I wouldnt go so far as to call it Vegetable Valley, but it is close," says Herwig Dejonghe of processor Pinguin, comparing Flanders to Californias Silicon Valley in the US.

Pinguin is one of 13 vegetable processors in the area, a concentration of the industry which is attracting specialist growers and equipment manufacturers alike.

One grower is Daniel Verduyn, who handles 45,000t of baby carrots and 70,000t of green vegetables grown on his own farm and by others on contract to him. Produce is grown, harvested, washed and cut to the specifications of buyers, which include Pinguin and UK processor Fishers Frozen Foods.

"Our contract growers have to grow to our specifications; we visit them every week and make a report," says Mr Verduyn. If the crop is not to standard, and management advice has not been followed, the contract is unlikely to be renewed.

But he says he cannot compete with UK pea producers, who have the advantage with volume products such as beans or peas. "Here the average farm size is 20-30ha, so they need to grow high-value vegetables," he says.

Technological advances also benefit the processors in the area. Pinguin and Fishers put a cold store up in a joint venture in the south of France. "It cost nearly twice as much as the same store in Flanders would," says Mr Dejonghe.