Commodities and Futures: Time of plenty approaches for Britons' core delicacy

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The Independent Online
THE APPLE is Britain's most popular fruit - we spend more than pounds 9.50 per person on apples a year. They are healthy, convenient, not messy and one of the few foods now socially acceptable to eat while walking down the street.

But we are not even near to living up to the proverb 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away.' On average Britons eat about 100 apples a year, fewer than consumers in almost every other European Community country.

However, this year we will have an opportunity to gorge ourselves on them. An abundance of English and European apples is about to be harvested, and if that is not enough imported apples from the southern hemisphere which need to be eaten soon are in cold storage here. Consumers will be spoiled for choice.

Because British weather conditions during this growing season have been perfect for apples the English dessert crop is expected to be of average size - 200,000 tonnes - but of much higher quality than last year. Some enthusiasts are even calling it a vintage crop.

The cooking apple crop, which includes Bramleys, is expected to be more than 120,000 tonnes. Cider apples, very bitter and grown solely for cider, are produced in the West of England and about 75,000 tonnes are expected this season, the cider maker Bulmer says.

In Europe growers expect a bumper apple harvest of 10 million tonnes, well above the average 8 million and nearly double last year's weather-hit 5.7 million.

Since Britain imports up to 70 per cent of the apples it consumes - pounds 220m-worth last year - the big European crop means in theory that consumer prices should be lower this year. We are already seeing lower prices for the French Golden Delicious apples now glutting the market (Sainsbury's quotes 28p per lb).

Early-harvested English apples, like the Discovery and Katy varieties, are in the shops now. But the apple of Britain's eye, Cox's, is just being picked and should be on supermarket shelves in two weeks.

English growers are pleased about this year's crop but worried about foreign competition. To some extent there is little they can do, since Britons eat three times the apples produced at home.

Food for Britain, which promotes home- produced food, says that achieving self-sufficiency in apples through intensive farming would be dauntingly expensive. About 30 years ago half of Britain's apple acreage was 'grubbed', or pulled up, because the industry was unprofitable.

But this year could be problematic. British producers fear that the European growers will flood the market with cheap fruit.

Home Grown Fruits, England's biggest apple and pear marketing co-operative, says that stored apples from the southern hemisphere, mainly South America, are depressing wholesale prices.

Brazilian Fijis are going at knockdown prices of pounds 3 or pounds 4 for a 40lb box, a quarter of the average price. Malcolm Schofield, Home Grown's chief executive, said these and other apples were picked and packed in March and stored but are 'fairly tired' by now and overhanging the market.

'There is going to be a lot of fruit about which is going to have to find a market,' he said. 'There might be a bit of a bloodbath in the next few months.'

Consumers may benefit, but the supermarkets will not be giving fruit away. The retailers are preparing to stock a wide range of apples, domestic and foreign.

Sainsbury's expects to offer 25 varieties of English apples this year, with Cox's available from September until April and other varieties - including Worcester Pearmain, Spartan and Egremont Russet - available by season.

Old-fashioned varieties now in vogue with names like Chivers' Delight, Ashmead's Kernel, Kidd's Orange Red and Laxton's Fortune, will be on sale. So will more recently developed apples such as Fiesta, Gala and Jonagold.

In addition the supermarkets will still keep stocking New Zealand, Chilean, South African and North American apples, but priced at a premium while the English season is in full swing. New Zealand Braeburns at present cost around 65p a pound while the English Katy are 35p.

The co-operatives say that retail apple prices may decline when the season is well upon us, but if they are too low for long the growers cannot afford to produce the quality fruit on which they pride themselves.

Supermarkets have no interest in very low prices either, because profits margins shrink and that affects what they are willing to stock in future, according to Joanna Wood, of English Apples and Pears.

Nevertheless, keep your eyes peeled for the occasional bargain.

(Photograph omitted)