The new orange order

Unlikely though it may seem, Britain leads the world in fresh- pressed orange juice. But this success story is now threatened by the EC.
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BRITAIN'S hard-pressed, fresh-pressed orange juice industry faces an anxious New Year. The EC food commissioners have been on the verge of snuffing it out.

You didn't know we had a fresh-pressed orange industry? We do, and it is the biggest and best in the world. In 10 years it has come from nowhere to a pounds 50 million a year retail business. We drink more fresh-pressed juice than any country in Europe, than America even, the home of orange-juice drinking. That's because Americans don't buy fresh-pressed juice. What they mostly drink is pasteurised (Tropicana is the leading brand name) and frozen juice.

In Britain, orange juice (ignoring orange "drinks" which are but orange flavours) is more widely consumed in the form of concentrated juice. This is reconstituted (six parts water to one part concentrate) but inevitably lacks the pizzazz of fresh juice (in the process the volatile oils and aromas are first removed, then put back later). It is also pasteurised.

What's the difference between fresh and pasteurised? Taste and texture. Juice, pasteurised by heat treatment, develops a slightly cooked taste and a syrupy texture. Contrary to received wisdom, the British consumer can tell the difference and, what's more, is prepared to pay a premium for something manifestly excellent.

Pure orange juice is a product entirely devoid of man's interference, without additives, preservatives, colouring. It is the juice of fresh oranges, pressed one day, delivered overnight by refrigerated transport, on sale in the stores the next morning, with a brief shelf life - the real thing. Nothing added or taken away.

Its essential purity is the essence of its appeal, believes John Sexton, head of Johnson's Fresh Products, one of the bigger companies. The process is designed to eliminate any contamination from crop sprays.

This is more than can be said for the making of concentrates, says Sexton, where a recent case revealed that whole fruit, pith and skins were squeezed, mixed with water and squeezed again. "That's what I would call adulteration." British fresh-pressing is a pure as can be, he reckons. "We are given crop-spraying records with each delivery, the fruit is analysed, then washed in a chlorine rinse. A machine cuts out a plug from the orange, removing the central pith. Then two cups enclose the orange, pressing the juice through the aperture made by the removal of the core. The juice has no contact with the external skin."

John Sexton is still only 36. When he was 25, a heating engineer by training, he had the bright idea of getting fresh juice to hotels, saving them time, labour and cost.

Working from his mother's back kitchen (which measured only eight foot by four) in Dalston, east London, he acquired a load of oranges and started squeezing, using a pounds 40 electric juicer bought from Argos. He got up at three o'clock every morning, squeezed away, then delivered the juice by van to the kitchens of top hotels.

"Most chefs thought the pasteurised juice sold in tetrapaks was fresh until they tasted mine," John says. "I was able to keep going because every chef who tasted it expressed genuine interest." The first year he kept going by blind faith, he says. "I could only afford to pay myself pounds 20 a week."

An entrepreneurial success story. But one endangered by the European commissioners. Suddenly, last summer, without consultation or discussion, they put out a directive that slapped a 28 per cent entry tariff on fruit imported from outside the EC, a measure designed to protect orange-growers in member states.

Shattering news for us Brits. The tax could turn our boom into bust, says Anthony Pile, head of Orchard, the biggest of our juicers (supplying Marks & Spencer among others). The business is still reeling from successive setbacks. "In 1993 the USSR broke up and the cost of oranges shot up as they sent out their tankers to load up with oranges at any price. Also in 1993, the Government hit us with 1712 per cent VAT. Now this."

They've asked the European commissioners to consider them a test case and are fighting for exemption from the tax on the grounds of "dislocation of existing trade".

They wonder what they've done to deserve this. But the EC commission acts on behalf of all member states. We're talking of Spanish oranges here. But as France, Portugal, Italy and Greece automatically vote with Spain, we have the uphill task of talking them round.

But wait a minute. Why shouldn't British juicers just use Spanish fruit? They already do, but Spain doesn't produce fruit that's suitable for juicing all the year round. The main Spanish product is the famous table orange, the navel. And table fruit contains a substance in the pith, called limolin, that gives the juice an unpleasant, sharp flavour within two or three hours of pressing (a taste that's recognised by some, but not all, consumers).

The main juice orange is the Late Valencia; and as such is the most extensively grown orange in the US, Jamaica, Cuba, Israel, Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Australia and second (after the Pera) in Brazil, the world's biggest producer of oranges.

But, just as Cheddar cheese is made everywhere in the world except where it originated, Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, the same is true of the Valencia orange, which is named after the beautiful city that is the heart of Spain's orange-growing plains. I know, because I lived in an orange grove there for a year and I can answer yes to Goethe's poem: "Do you know a country... where oranges of gold glow in the dark leaves and a gentle breeze blows from blue heaven?" Our oranges of gold were huge Navelinas weighing a pound each, fat-skinned, premium fruit. I never saw a Late Valencia.

Now, there is something curiously British about the Late Valencia, It was pioneered by an Englishman. Thomas Rivers, of Sawbridge-worth, Herts, put it on the map when he was sent samples of this prolific orange from the Azores in the early 1860s. While his interest was supplying grand Victorian houses with decorative specimens to grow in their conservatories, he recognised its commercial potential. He sent samples to colleagues in the US. In Florida, a nurseryman called F H Hart renamed it Hart's Tardif. In California they deferred to Rivers, naming it Rivers Late.

Ten years later, a Spanish citrus expert visiting California observed that Rivers Late resembled a late-maturing orange in the Valencia region, so they changed the name to Late Valencia. The irony, in this debate, is that Late Valencia represents less than 10 per cent of Spain's total annual crop and it is available for only a few months each year. So what are they going on about?

In the next few weeks, British producers hope the EC will grant at least a short-term exemption as a way to keeping our industry alive and at no cost to the Spanish (who would be the losers, too, if it was killed off). Indeed, we could see steady growth of fresh juices within the EC. The Danes are starting to go for it, and we are selling some in Paris (via the tunnel).

The Germans, however, haven't been able to get it off the ground. For the very good reason, says John Sexton with pride, that they don't have a chilled food distribution system as efficient as ours. "It is simply the best in the world. And we have the highest hygiene and safety standards, too. That's what's essential. We have a lot to be positive about." !