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Today's important COVID-19 news in the fresh produce sector

Corona-update: Belgian study reveals locked down shoppers turn to vegetables, shunning ready meals

As the COVID-19 situation is reaching a stage of normalisation, a Belgian study from the University of Antwerp shows that shoppers cut spending on ready-made meals and bought more fruit and vegetables, turning to healthier eating.

In the US, processor Lamb Weston returns part of the 2019 potato crop to Northwest farmers, and Idaho potato farmers are also feeling the effects of the pandemic. The same pandemic, by the way, doesn’t seem to be able to stop the Brentwood cherry picking season.

Over in Asia, Alibaba’s Lazada Group opened a virtual store to link farmers and homebound Malaysians, while in India, the Jammu and Kashmir administration dispatched 1,450 fruit trucks from Kashmir to cold stores to Delhi and other terminal markets.

Belgian study: Locked down shoppers turn to vegetables and shun ready meals
According to the preliminary results of a research project, shoppers cut spending on ready-made meals and bought more fruit and vegetables, turning to healthier eating during coronavirus lockdowns.

People forced to stay home also tried new recipes and threw away less food, the survey of nearly 11,000 shoppers in 11 countries found.

“Amid lockdowns people are eating healthier, are cooking their own food and are consuming more fruit and vegetables,” said Charlotte De Backer, who coordinated the study at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

As they deserted offices and cooked at home, shoppers cut purchases of microwaveable food in all the countries surveyed - Australia, Belgium, Chile, Uganda, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Greece, Canada, Brazil and Ireland.

Consumption of salty, fat and sweet products usually goes up when people are under stress, but during the pandemic this heightened craving has been fulfilled in many countries with home-baked delicacies, said De Backer, who chairs FOOMS, a research group on food and media at the University of Antwerp.

Lamb Weston returns part of 2019 crop to Northwest growers
Processor Lamb Weston has returned part of the 2019 potato crop to Northwest farmers. The company doesn’t have the ability to run all of the 2019 potatoes remaining in storage, said Dale Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington.

Lamb Weston did not respond to requests for comment. Like make other processors that cater to the foodservice sector, Lamb Weston has seen less demand for its french fries and other frozen potato products during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In its third quarter report, Lamb Weston, a publicly traded company, withdrew its financial outlook for the fiscal year.

About 30% of the potatoes still in growers’ storage has been returned to farmers, Lathim said. He said that’s about 4 million hundredweight of potatoes in Washington. About 1 million hundredweight were returned in Idaho and 300,000 hundredweight in Alberta, Canada.

The three other major processing companies — the J.R. Simplot Co., McCain Foods and Cavendish Farms — aren’t likely to follow suit, but they also won’t be able to absorb the excess potatoes, Lathim said. Lamb (Weston) is the biggest and strongest processor in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “If they don’t have any home for (the potatoes) to go to, then nobody else would, either.”

COVID impact on Idaho potato farmers
With COVID-19 closures in place all across the United States, and even the world, restaurant demand for potatoes has fallen. According to Frank Muir, CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, 60% of Idaho potatoes go to restaurants.

Idaho potato farmers worked to adapt their crops to go to retail instead of food service, sending 50 lbs. crates to grocers for displays. Videos on social media of people deliberately coughing on produce further set back growers as they now had to start bagging potatoes instead of placing them in cartons, losing time and money.

According to Muir, 2020 potato prices started off strong. March showed more potato purchases than the days prior to Thanksgiving 2019. “We’re trying to move crops in unprecedented times,” Muir said. “Prices were strong but they’ve been dipping. We can’t replace 60% of the food service loss.”

Muir says from a government perspective, the National Potato Council has been making efforts to work with senators and congressman to get surpluses bought, as government ordered shutdowns caused for reductions in contracts.

On May 4, the USDA announced they would be purchasing $50 million in surplus potatoes. This will be the largest purchase of all specialty crops as a part of the USDA’s Section 32 food purchase.

Pandemic can’t stop Brentwood cherry picking season
The pandemic might have canceled many springtime pleasures, but there’s no stopping the cherry blooms — or the eager U-Pick fruit lovers who come to Brentwood to enjoy the bountiful harvest each year.

Though much of the world has taken a pause, the time is still ripe for fresh fruit picking, and U-Pick farms, like farmers markets and grocers, are deemed “essential businesses,’’ according to the Contra Costa County Health Department. As such, they can operate as long as they abide by all county health rules, such as requiring masks for everyone over 12 and maintaining social distancing.

“There’s a small handful (of farmers) that are trying to go the commercial route so they don’t have to deal with any sort of crowd that is coming in and any kind of exposure,” said Mitch Bloomfield, co-owner of Bloomfield Cherries. “But for the most part, everyone I know is opening up and making sure (health) precautions and guidelines for the U-Pick are followed.”

Alibaba’s Lazada turned dumped produce into a business
Farmers in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands dumped hundreds of tons of produce in March after Covid-19 lockdowns shuttered wholesale markets and restaurants across the nation. They also gave Alibaba a chance to crack a difficult arena.

Lazada Group SA, the Southeast Asian subsidiary of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., opened a virtual store to link farmers and homebound Malaysians. The uptake surprised even the e-commerce giant: consumers bought an average of 1.5 tons of cabbages, carrots and spinach each day. On the fourth day, 3.5 tons of veggies were sold in less than half an hour. By the third week, about 70 tons had been delivered from farms to doorsteps across the country.

Fresh groceries -- now one of the top three categories on Lazada Malaysia -- weren’t even an option there three months ago. Before the novel coronavirus, Lazada had dedicated grocery arms only in Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines; after the outbreak, it’s expanded to Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. It’s keen to maintain that momentum, backed by 30 fulfillment centers across 17 cities in the region.

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Underway to Delhi: 1450 fruit trucks dispatched from Kashmir
The Jammu and Kashmir administration dispatched 1450 fruit trucks from Kashmir to cold stores to Delhi and other terminal markets. “With Government relaxing lockdown measures to permit gradual resumption of activity in certain sectors, Industries & Commerce Department in Kashmir Division is restarting units manufacturing essential commodities and medical supplies,” an official said.

Major activity has been seen in functioning of the cold stores. “We have restored industrial activity and more importantly the fruit that was lying in cold stores was a concern and now about 1450 trucks have left from cold stores to Delhi and other terminal markets”, said Director Industries & Commerce Kashmir, Mehmood Ahmad Shah. “There are 31 CA stores holding about 25000 MT of apple and this fruit would be gradually exported to fruit markets till the middle of June”, he added.

“About 80 packaging units manufacturing card board boxes are also functional. By allowing cold stores and card board units to resume operations, the fruit crop would get the much needed packaging and marketing support. In next 10 to 15 days, cherry season is going to start. Both cold stores and card board packaging units shall cater to the cherry crop and benefit the growers and fruit dealers. Since the shelf life of cherry is very short, this year more emphasis will be on canning the produce to increase its shelf life.” Director of Industries said.

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