One out of every four kilos of frozen vegetables that Spain sells to European supermarkets comes from Murcia. Last year, a total of 125,541 tonnes were shipped, generating 138.3 million Euro in turnover. To get an idea of the growth recorded by this subsector, the turnover of 2006 was just 50.1 million Euro.
This expansion has forced transport companies in the region to make heavy investments in refrigerated warehouses to be able to handle such volumes, since 98% of exports are made by road. Broccoli is the most sold frozen vegetable, followed by artichokes, peppers, peas, spinach, courgettes and onions.
Between January and July this year, Murcian sales abroad totalled 74,207 tonnes (-6.65%) and 81,270,566 Euro in turnover (-9.81%), according to the latest data from the Foreign Trade Institute (Icex). Sales fell in the United Kingdom (Flanders and Murcia are the biggest European suppliers in that country) by -10.2%, as well as in Germany and the Netherlands, both with -26%, and in Finland, with -62%.
In the rest of the countries, the number of orders has grown slightly. This is the case for France (second largest client for the Region), Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Poland, the United States and Switzerland. Nevertheless, such increases are not enough to fill the gap left by British, German and Dutch importers.
The search for new suppliers on the part of UK retail chains is facilitating the arrival in Europe of non-EU competitors, especially exporters from China, Turkey, Ecuador, Chile and India. From the UK, they make the jump to Germany and the Netherlands, especially in the case of China's shipments.
The decline of exports this year coincides with a stronger Egyptian competition. Consumption of frozen artichokes in Europe has remained stable in recent years, but in the last campaign, Egypt, one of the main exporters of this processed vegetable (accounting for between 25% and 30% of the frozen artichokes consumed domestically), had a great volume. And, to top it off, the quality was very low, according to the association Artichoke of Spain.
This has led to a collapse of consumption and price drops (from the usual 2 Euro per kilo down to 1.6 Euro), highlights Antonio Navarro, executive director of Ultracongelados Azarbe. "That poor quality has a negative impact on the national artichoke production for freezing, because the client doesn't know where the product comes from; they only know that they don't like it and, therefore, they won't buy it again. We need high tariffs to prevent the entry into Spain of low quality Egyptian artichokes and to ensure that the situation does not become worse in the coming years."
Conveying an image of quality is precisely the main challenge for the national association of frozen vegetable producers (Asevec), since according to their surveys, only 49% of Spanish households believe that deep-frozen vegetables are as good as fresh vegetables.
The organization emphasizes that, in most cases, frozen vegetables contain more vitamins and minerals, as they are processed very shortly after the harvest. It is worth recalling that vegetables are almost never consumed instantly, except for those grown in private vegetable gardens, "so the closest thing to that are vegetables that have been subject to deep freezing."
The Spanish regions growing the most vegetables for the deep-frozen industry are Navarre (192,211 tonnes in 2016, 28% of the national production), Murcia (144,415 tonnes, 21%) and Andalusia (82,376 tonnes, 12%). The total acreage devoted to them exceeds 40,000 hectares.
This subsector is in the hands of a few groups that focus their commercial strategies on internationalization, since the domestic market is unable to absorb their production volumes. According to the consultant Kantar Worldpanel, only 32% of Spanish consumers eat frozen vegetables weekly, compared to 90% in the case of fresh produce.