The second World Pear Congress was held in May in Sint-Truiden, the main pear-producing area in Belgium. This unique all-pear meeting brought together over 150 representatives from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States.
The program began with a visit to two of the leading fruit cooperatives in Belgium, where pear production is rapidly increasing due to the popularity and uniqueness of the Conference variety in Europe. On the tour, we were educated (in four different languages) on the sales systems, and sorting and packaging facilities. The highlight on the first stop was a firsthand experience of selling through the Dutch auction.
On our second stop, we were given a sneak preview of a brand new, fully automated sorting and packaging system. This system—an 8-million-euro investment—with optical sorting is projected to minimize the amount of labor required to sort and pack pears.
After the technical visits, “Interpera,” the World Pear Congress, officially opened at the Academy Hall in Sint-Truiden. The congress, in order to provide new and updated information from last year’s congress in Spain, had a specific focus on the processing sector for pears and on other market challenges like maximum residue levels and distribution. The congress was opened up in the official style for Europe with a number of dignitaries present, including the mayor of Sint-Truiden and the agriculture minister of Belgium. The lectures for the day included an overview of fruit and pear production in Belgium, first harvest forecasts for summer and autumn pears in Europe, and a look at the pear processing market in the European Union, with specific examples from Italy.
Argentina and the United States provided production overviews, with a specific focus on the processing sector. I provided an overview of the North American pear crop, 95 percent of which is from Washington, California and Oregon, and of the challenges facing the processing pear sector. One challenge is the availability of year-round fresh fruit competition, although canned fruit sales have spiked during this poor economic period. Most countries are also concerned about competition from China because of the low cost of production there and the poor quality of the product, which tends to erode the market. Although there’s a need for new and improved pear products, there is not a tremendous amount of resources going into new product development. The day ended with a presentation from Italy on the relationship of the producer with the processing industry.
The second day of the Congress started out with a general overview of the distribution channels of pears in Europe and led into a lively discussion on phytosanitary measures, with a presentation by the European Commission on the current issues and outlook of the European policy for the fruit and vegetable sector. This topic generated a number of comments from producers across Europe and specific concerns from Argentina, whose pear industry is focused on exports, rather than domestic consumption, and ships to 60 different markets.
I provided a general overview of the main differences to MRLs (Maximum Residue Levels) in the United States compared to Europe. It was interesting to me that in Europe, retail chains are setting their own MRLs above and beyond the European Union limits. This creates a whole new dynamic where MRLs are no longer science based but have become a retail standard.
I highlighted some of the general challenges without MRL harmonization, such as the fact that some countries (for example, Russia) are using them as trade barriers. As a producer, you can comply with U.S. or Codex MRLs, but be out of compliance in a number of export markets. This creates ongoing challenges and instability in the marketplace.
I also spoke about the public’s attitude in the United States towards food safety.
The congress finished up with an interesting tour of the pcfruit Research Station for Fruit in Sint-Truiden, where we experienced excellent tours in pear variety development and pear growing systems. The day was complete with a visit to a four-year-old, high-density pear orchard that was in full production.