Imports of the deglet nour date variety are approximately 30 000 tonnes per year. It is the most popular variety in EU. Nevertheless there are some differences between southern and northern Europe.
Southern EU countries mainly consume deglet nour dates. Due to their history and culture, France, Spain and Italy have strong trading links with Tunisia and Algeria. Some 90 percent of the deglet nour produced in the world are exported from these two countries. The remaining 10 percent are produced in Israel and the United States. With 25 000 tonnes, the southern EU countries represent 85 percent of deglet nour imports. They consume the bulk of natural deglet nour, which is not very popular in Germany and the United Kingdom where consumers tend to prefer processed dates.
As they have less trade relationship with Maghreb countries, the United Kingdom and Germany import smaller quantities of deglet nour (some 4 200 tonnes together in 2000). However, it seems that deglet nour consumption has increased.
Deglet nour still offers significant opportunities as evidenced by the increase in imports since 1998. Nevertheless its price has decreased steadily since 1995. This is reflected in the declining unit value of imports for Tunisian and Algerian dates (which are essentially deglet nour) in Figure 11.
Common date is a term generally used by European traders to designate dates that are not deglet nour or mejool. This group includes several varieties such as kenta, alligh, kouat alligh, sayer and zahedi. The United Kingdom and Germany together import approximately 10 000 tonnes of common dates annually.
In Germany, traders are interested in the low price of common dates. In The United Kingdom, the population of Asian origin is thought to have a big influence on the consumption of common dates. These dates are also used by the foodstuff industry in the UK.
While EU imports of common dates are significant (about 16 000 tonnes), this quantity has not increased substantially over the past years. This seems to indicate that demand is shifting towards higher quality dates such as mejool or deglet nour. Only the foodstuff industry keeps a stable demand for common dates. The low and declining prices of common dates can be seen in Figure 11, where the unit value of common dates imported from Iran and Pakistan has declined to approximately US$0.5 per kg.
In Europe, mejool dates have been known since the early 1990s and it is only in the last three to four years that they have really taken off. They are to be found on the market of the main European countries. Imports of mejool are very low (1 800 tonnes in 1999, see Table 3) but they have been rapidly increasing.
With approximately 1 800 tonnes per year, and especially an exponential growth, these dates are arousing interest and hopes among importers. On a market in which there is seldom any innovation, the promising beginnings of mejool give some reason to think that, in coming years, it could be a major product in the range of dates on offer.
Countries producing mejool
The United States and Israel today share the European market. The United States is the foremost producer. Located in California, the palm groves lie mainly in the two areas of Bard Valley, which by itself produces 70 percent of mejool dates, the second area being Coachella Valley. Their exports rose to approximately 800 tonnes in 1999.
Israel is playing the part of a challenger effectively. In the opinion even of American traders, the country offers an interesting alternative to buyers. This source has improved its quality, it guarantees the traceability of products and continues to be less expensive by virtue, in particular, of lower transport costs. It is developing its production (2 000 tonnes), mainly in the regions of Eilat and the Dead Sea. As in the case of other varieties of dates, the marketing of mejool has been entrusted to two companies, Agrexco and Hadiklaim. According to these traders, exports to Europe were expected to exceed 1 200 tonnes in the 1999-2000 season (Eurofruit 1999).
Some other countries (e.g. Namibia) have also started producing mejool.
Period of production
This extends from the end of August to the end of November for both Israel and California, which allows the markets to be supplied from September to May, bearing in mind the possibilities of keeping the product under refrigeration.
From Israel, imports take place in 20' refrigerated containers containing 1 440 palletised cartons, as well as collectively by refrigerated truck. Transit time is approximately two weeks. From the United States, imports - in the case of complete consignments - also take place in 20' or 40' refrigerated containers containing 3 600 palletised cartons. By boat, the transit time is three to four weeks. Other consignments primarily take place by air freight, which obviously adds to the cost of the product but does allow greater flexibility of supply in the case of a product which is gathering momentum and above all which is worth more than €7 per kilo.
Three sizes are offered: jumbo, large and medium (fancy). In the case of the United States, the jumbo size represents approximately 40 percent of the quantities harvested, the other two sizes representing approximately 30 percent each.
There is not really a specific quality standard for mejool. It normally has its best degree of maturity and full flavour when it turns dark brown, almost black, and soft to the touch. There is, moreover, a market for a very mature and very fresh quality of date. It is, by contrast, very awkward to process. In France, some pallets of processed mejool have been sold and been much appreciated. Generally speaking, mejool has a light dusty appearance on the surface of the skin, which is in fact the sugar of the date which is being released. The British prefer it like this. The French, used to deglet nour, would rather it was lighter and shinier in appearance. On the other hand, it may display detachment of the skin which renders it rather unattractive. For a quality product, the presence of fruit with detached skin needs to be minimal. Under open-air storage conditions, mejool also tends to sweeten more rapidly than deglet nour does as it dries.
Mejool stored under positive refrigeration retains all its qualities for six months. It may also be frozen, which extends its keeping and above all allows the gap between seasons to be bridged.
Dates from the United States are subject to 10.6 percent taxation when they enter the EC. There is exemption from this tax if the product is imported in order to be repackaged. This is what the British traders do to avoid the charge. They import mejool dates in 15 lb. cartons of loose dates and repackage them using their customers' trademark.
Packaging intended for re-packers is generally 5 kg or 15 lb. That intended for loose sale is 5 kg. It is generally packaging which is very carefully produced using quality kraft material and sufficient thickness to avoid any sagging. The carton is generally telescopic with a printed lid which may, like the Bard Valley one, serve as a display. The bottom is of the same quality as the lid. It is covered with a film which protects the dates and has a cardboard divider which prevents the fruit from being compressed in the course of handling.
Only the United Kingdom, through large-scale retailers, has so far succeeded in getting a small package onto the market. In Germany, trials with a 150-g pack were under way in 2000. In France, a 250-g window box is selling sluggishly. On the other hand, the Brousse Vergez company has just created a 150-g pack which it calls the Cristal pack, the dual advantage of which is matching quality to a product of this price and not being very expensive per unit on account of its low weight.
Prices vary depending on the origin, the manufacturer, the size and the means of transport. While in the UK the CIF price of a 200g ravier of processed kouat alligh was Euro 1.45/kg in 2000, that of mejool sold in 5-kg package was Euro 6.37/kg. In Germany and France, the price of mejool was Euro 6.18/kg and Euro 6.86/kg respectively. Trade in mejool is currently very profitable, as demand seems to outweigh supply. The higher price of mejool is reflected in Figure 11. The United States and Israel, the only two countries that export mejool, enjoy high unit values of imports. The fact that this value is rising may be explained by the increasing share of mejool in their exports.
Current limits on the development of mejool
The first limit on the development of mejool stems from the low quantities currently produced. The direct consequence of this small volume of supply is the high price of the product, which, after the succession of margins applied to it within the distribution system and to which taxes are to be added, reaches the consumer at €13 or 15 per kilo. Paradoxically, the high price is one of the current driving forces in the development of mejool, since while consumers lose out somewhere along the line, packers, importers and distributors all gain. They push the product since today one container of mejool brings in more than 15 truckloads of deglet nour trays and is relatively easier to sell.
The second limit on the development of mejool is the capacity or willingness of large-scale retailers to invest in the product. After all, if mejool is to be accessible to consumers as a whole, it is essential that it should be available in the departments of large hypermarkets and supermarkets. While this appears to be the case in the United Kingdom, it is not in other countries. Germany is up against the high price of the product, which is alien to the mentality of discount buyers and do not see the benefit of such an expensive product. In France and Spain, the constraint is the centralization of the decision-making systems of large-scale retailers whose job is to carry products that sell well and not new products that might sell well. In other words, the product will be available in those countries when the traditional retail trade has done its work of promotion among the largest number of consumers.
How can an exporter of mejool dates overcome the obstacle of large-scale retail?
As consumption stands at present, it seems impossible for an exporter to access the European market on his own. He needs a logistical and commercial base in order to be able to supply and invoice the different outlets and central buying offices. The role of the importer is one which cannot be ignored. The question therefore is: which importer is the best to be able to sell in the large-scale retail system?
Today it seems that fresh fruit specialists are better equipped to introduce a product into large-scale retail. Generally speaking, dried fruit follows a standard referencing channel whose starting-point is the national central buying office and which goes right down to shop level. Fresh fruit can follow a shorter circuit. It is possible for access to regional outlets and even, in some cases, directly to shops. On the other hand, the ideal packaging suited to the fresh fruit department has yet to be found.
Through its form, texture, taste and storage characteristics, hayani is very distinct from other dates. It is a fresh fruit in its own right. Familiar in Israel, where it is sold practically throughout the year, the marketing of this product in Europe has been undertaken for ten years or so with limited success by the Hadiklaim company. Outside Spain, which takes 700 tonnes, the other European countries only take 500 tonnes per year. Moreover, the consultant who did the survey had some reservations about the Figure s provided by the exporter. While all agree on the total import of 1 200 tonnes, it may be that the estimated tonnage for France and Italy is grossly overestimated, while Spain may take more than the 700 tonnes reported.
The keeping of hayani dates
The Israelis call hayani “Fresh All Year Round Dates”. They are frozen, pitted or unpitted, immediately after harvesting. The fibrous texture of the fruit and its high sugar content allow it to undergo this treatment perfectly and to remain in perfect condition in terms of appearance and taste. Once it has been thawed, it really does look as though it had just been harvested.
Hayani dates are exported in a 20' refrigerated container containing nine pallets.
There are two sizes, jumbo and standard, but they are not always adhered to.
They are mainly imported in a 5 kg carton of loose dates. Consumer packaging is handled directly by importers, generally distributing 500-g transparent plastic window boxes.
The prices of hayani dates
The Israeli traders always offer CIF prices. According to the latest information the consultant had, the price of hayani at source was on the decrease.
Logistical constraints on hayani dates
Loose product: the product is supplied frozen directly to the shop. It is then thawed and put on display chilled, depending on demand. It thus retains a shelf life of approximately 10 days. Legally, the shop is bound to indicate that the product has been thawed.
Packed in window boxes: EC legislation provides for the packed products having to show a sell-by date. If the shop is supplied with the frozen product and it thaws it to put it on display, as it would do in the case of the loose product, it is obliged to indicate the sell-by date on each packet. This operation is impossible in practical terms. It can therefore only accept products which are already marked and therefore ones already thawed ready to be put on display. It can clearly be seen that with window box packaging, all the benefits conferred by the frozen product are lost. This becomes very restrictive, since it means the importer has to carry out this marking operation himself. And, above all, it considerably reduces the quantities supplied. In the case of fresh products, shops can only order the quantities needed for several days' sale. It accordingly limits importers of this type, who must be able to guarantee the logistics of the fresh fruit sector - in other words, be capable of supplying shops rapidly over a wide area under profitable economic conditions.
The marketing of hayani dates in Europe
This is dependent on the exporter/importer combination. The Israeli marketing system is based on two principles: a pooling of exports and the choice of a small number of importers per country. As far as the Hadiklaim company - which markets hayani dates but also all other Israeli dates - is concerned, the type of partners they work with already in each country is a determining factor. The ideal importer must therefore be able to sell both products at once. He must be at the same time the seller of dried fruit and the seller of fresh fruit and in addition he must have refrigeration facilities and sufficient resources to repack the product when necessary. It is obvious that ideal candidates are few and far between. In Spain, for example, the Meneu company sells hayani very well, yet only markets a few pallets of mejool.
Limits on the commercial development of hayani dates in Europe
In this connection, the experiment in France in 1996 by the Hadiklaim company and its importer is very revealing. The operation was intended to promote hayani dates in French large-scale retail. The products were offered in two sizes, standard and jumbo, and were packed in 500-g window boxes and loose in 5-kg lots. The customers contacted were the heads of department in hypermarkets with more than 8 000 square metres of floor area. The operation consisted of placing a pallet of 100 cartons and a promoter at the disposal of this store; for two days, the promoter was responsible for promoting sales. Each promoter had sales leaflets and posters. Where stock remained unsold, the importer also undertook to take the remaining products back. The public selling price was FF 19.90 per kilo, carriage paid to the store, for a purchase price of FF 13 per kilo, which left a comfortable margin of just over 30 percent. Following more than fifty promotions, the average quantities sold were 63 cartons per promotion, or approximately FF 7 000 in turnover in two days per store. From these results, the sales potential could be estimated at FF 5 000 per week under normal conditions, viz. without a promoter. Despite these promising results, the importer never managed to go beyond the stage of promotion exercises and get the product bought and stocked in large-scale retailers.
The reasons for this commercial failure are manifold. Firstly, it is due to the centralizing of purchasing decisions in large-scale retailers. Establishing a new product requires an intense commercial effort to convince the different decision-makers, from the top of the organization downwards. Secondly, buyers are uncomfortable with the hybrid nature of the product, which is both frozen and fresh, since it straddles two types of regulations and health rules. It does not integrate well in the merchandising organization of the fruit and vegetable department since it has to be sold loose where it would be preferable to see it in pre-packaged form and it has to be put in chilled display cabinets which are generally used specifically for salads and prepared products. Finally, it does not fit into the organization of purchases, which is based on families of products, under which frozen products are generally stored separately from fruit and vegetables.
The bahri variety is exported and sold as fresh produce by Israel. Only small volumes are consumed in Europe. Its main markets are in France, the UK and Spain.
Bahri is a date which integrates fully with fresh fruit. Approximately 500 tonnes per year are imported into Europe, mainly into France, United Kingdom and Spain, which share this tonnage in equal proportions.
Bahri dates are imported from Israel and marketed by Agrexco and Hadiklaim.
Bahri dates are packed in 5 kg cartons. The fruit is on branches approximately 30 centimetres long.
Like all fresh fruit, bahri dates are stored under positive refrigeration.
Bahri's commercial potential
Bahri dates continue to be a specialist product reserved for a small clientele of consumers who know the product. Its particular taste and the bitterness of the fruit do not count in its favour with someone tasting it for the first time.
Some producers have diversified into organic production of dates. For example, Israel and Tunisia export certified organic dates to the European countries. The main market is Germany. Tunisia exported 678 tonnes of organic dates in 2000-2001, up 60 percent from 425 tonnes in the previous season (Fruitrop 2001). The United States (California) produces organic dates (including mejool).