Export Opportunity: More Louisiana Sweet Potatoes to the U.K.

Linda Benedict  |  9/20/2005 9:59:41 PM

David H. Picha and Roger A. Hinson

Most of the sweet potatoes produced in Louisiana are marketed within the continental United States. However, domestic per capita consumption of sweet potatoes has remained mostly stagnant during the past several decades, hovering around 5 pounds per person per year. A market development within the past several years has been the significant increase in fresh sweet potato import volume by the United Kingdom (U.K.). Total import volume nearly tripled from 8.5 million pounds in 1997 to slightly more than 25 million pounds in 2002. Exports of U.S. sweet potatoes to the U.K. increased from 3.1 million pounds in 1997 to 13.1 million pounds in 2002, constituting slightly more than half of total U.K. import volume for 2002. This is the fastestgrowing market destination for U.S. sweet potatoes. Fresh sweet potatoes from North Carolina, Louisiana, California and Mississippi are being exported to the U.K. British supermarket buyers and importers forecast this market growth trend will continue. Louisiana grower and shippers have an excellent opportunity to benefit from this market opportunity and increase their export volume.

Personal discussions with produce managers from leading British retail supermarket chains indicated the sweet potato led all other fresh vegetables in market growth percentage during 2004. Orange-flesh sweet potatoes are now stocked year-round in all the U.K. stores of the top six British retail supermarket chains, which represent slightly more than a 75 percent market share of the British retail food market sector.

This is a dramatic contrast from only three years ago (2002), when few retail stores routinely stocked orangeflesh sweet potatoes. Though demand is year-round, consumption is higher during the cooler winter months. Sweet potatoes are widely consumed during the major winter holidays and festivals celebrated by the ethnic communities. The catering market segment – restau rants, institutions and food-service establishments – also is experiencing market growth in their value-added sweet potato products. Orange-flesh sweet potatoes are the preferred type in this market segment.  

Better Diet for Brits
Factors which have contributed to the increased consumption of exotic fresh produce items like sweet potatoes are the desire for a nutritious diet, greater affluence and a willingness to try new products. This has led to a new class of consumer with more sophisticated tastes and requirements.

Research in the LSU AgCenter is focusing on postharvest care and packaging technologies to improve market life and arrival quality of Louisiana sweet potatoes. Value-added products being tested include minimally processed fresh-cut items for the institutional and food service trade and individually shrink-wrapped microwavable roots for the supermarket retail trade. Appropriate product handling techniques and packaging specific to the British market must be used to increase market penetration.

Fresh sweet potatoes are susceptible to weight loss, deterioration and decay during all stages of transport and market distribution. These undesirable quality changes must be kept to a minimum to avoid a discounted market price or load rejection upon arrival in the U.K. British retailers typically impose tight quality control specifications for sweet potatoes. Damage from all sources (such as bruising, skinning, insect damage and disease) must not exceed a 2 percent gross defect tolerance level. Exportquality roots should be carefully selected to include only firm, well-shaped sweet potatoes with bright, clean skins. Strict control over sizing during grading is necessary to assure root uniformity within a carton, which is an important criterion of the British importers.

EUREPGAP Approval
All British retail supermarkets obtain their sweet potatoes through importers rather than purchasing directly from a grower or exporter. However, individual supermarket chains dictate their grade standards and quality requirements to which importers must adhere. In addition, sweet potato suppliers must be certified to sell to any of the principal British retailers. This is an industry-based scheme of good agricultural practices and compliance criteria in the areas of food safety, product traceability, environmental protection, and occupational health, safety and welfare. Grower and shippers receive EUREPGAP approval through an independent verification body approved by EUREPGAP. Started in 1997 as an initiative of retailers belonging to the Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group (EUREP), the organization is a partnership of agricultural producers and their retail customers to develop standards and procedures for the global certification of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).

Several distinct differences exist between American and British retailers in market presentation and packaging used for sweet potatoes. American retailers typically present fresh sweet potatoes to the consumer in the form of bulk displays, while British retailers offer both bulk and bagged displays of sweet potatoes. The size of the individual roots in the bulk display typically ranges between 12 ounces to 16 ounces and is larger than the roots in the consumer bags. Retailers offer store-labeled bagged roots in 500-gram (1.1-pound), 750-gram (1.7-pound) or 1 kilogram 2.2-pound) perforated polyethylene bags. Individual root size within the consumer bags generally ranges between 5 ounces to 7 ounces and is equivalent to a U.S. #2 (canner) size root. This is significant because it gives the Louisiana grower and shipper the opportunity to sell canner-sized roots to the British fresh market at substantially higher prices compared to the domestic processing market.

Another difference between American and British markets is in the shipping carton. The standard carton used in the American market is 40- pound, while the U.K. importers strongly prefer a 6-kilogram (13.2- pound) carton. The smaller 6-kilogram carton has been the standard in Britain for some years and conforms to the retailers desire to display bulk sweet potatoes in a shelf-ready carton. This avoids expensive re-packing of the sweet potatoes from the larger 40-pound carton into the smaller 6-kilogram carton and reduces product handling and potential bruising. It is in the best interests of the Louisiana exporter to comply with the importers’ desire to receive the product in the preferred shipping carton for their market, rather than assume the larger American style carton is satisfactory. Since other countries also export sweet potatoes to the U.K. and pack in 6-kilogram cartons, it is important for Louisiana exporters to be competitive and use the style of shipping carton desired in the destination market. Stronger cartons (preferably 6-kilogram size) with high impact color graphics will result in improved root protection during transit and distribution and give the importer a better impression of Louisiana product.

Israel Competes for Market
Next to the United States, the principal suppliers of sweet potatoes to the U.K. are Israel, South Africa and Egypt. The sweet potato industry in each of these countries is expanding, with the lucrative U.K. market their principal target destination. Minor supplying countries include Brazil, China, Jamaica, Uganda, Peru and New Zealand. The only European production, albeit limited, is in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Sweet potatoes are not grown in the U.K.

LSU AgCenter researchers also are studying the market opportunities and retailer preferences for Louisiana sweet potatoes in continental Europe. Significant growth potential exists in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia. Sweet potato import volume in these markets is just beginning to increase. In continental Europe, the sweet potato is allocated only limited shelf space in separate exotic sections of retail produce departments.

To sustain the Louisiana sweet potato industry, it is important to develop new market opportunities for fresh and value-added products. The British and European export markets are key examples of the possibilities awaiting the grower and shipper who can provide consistent supplies of high quality products tailored to these expanding market destinations.

David H. Picha, Professor, Department of Horticulture, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.; Roger A. Hinson, Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article appeared in the summer 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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