Moroccan citrus production is expected to slightly decline this season, according to early estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Initially it was thought that export quantities were unlikely to be affected, but owing to war in the Middle East, lower demand and increasingly expensive freight costs, expectations have now been revised downwards. Originally the USDA predicted that Morocco would export a maximum of 294,000 tonnes. That figure has now dropped to 250,000t.

Although non-EU markets, including Russia, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia and Canada account for up to 46 per cent of Morocco's fresh citrus exports, increasing attention is being given to EU export markets. And, says Allan Pearson from Hart & Friedmann's marketing department, despite neglecting the UK's pre-Christmas market in favour of Canada and the Middle East in the past, some of the major Moroccan suppliers are now showing a real commitment and drive to get in on the UK's “pre-Christmas action”.

Despite the downward trend in its EU export markets in recent years, a combination of factors including proximity, the higher price paid by consumers and preferential access given to Moroccan citrus under the Morocco-EU Free Trade Agreement continue to increase the appeal. Although market forces demand that this year Moroccan clementines have arrived early into the UK, the fact that produce is on the shelves does not necessarily translate into guaranteed sales.

“Traditionally the UK is pro-Spanish at this time of year and so the Moroccan commitment to pre-Christmas sales will not necessarily result in success,” says Pearson. “In recent years Spanish satsumas have become the preferred choice at this time of year and for Morocco to bring the fruit in early is a bold, positive and hopefully advantageous move.

“Since the fruit is here we will have to ensure that it doesn't sit on the shelf,” he continues, “but that won't happen without a battle. I can see Moroccan product winning the clementine business, but the question is, will it ever replace Spanish satsumas?”

Moroccan citrus does have a number of advantages and should benefit if the Spanish satsuma season finishes early, as is expected. “Usually Spanish satsumas end between Christmas and New Year,” says Pearson, “but this year has been short and so volumes will start to fall much earlier than that.”

Another advantage says Pearson, is the fact that Moroccan producers have put a great deal of effort into improving their citrus offer. “A lot of work has been carried out in terms of traceability,” he says. “The improvements that have been made in terms of packaging and presentation have made a real difference and the Moroccans should be rewarded for their efforts. The pristine appearance of the fruit should be recognised and applauded. The work that has been carried out in the past few years has made all the difference to the end product and has enhanced Morocco's reputation.”

Certification has also increased the profile of Moroccan citrus in recent years, says Delassus's Kacem Bennani-Smires: “Companies are increasingly realising that gaining certification is the way forward. Initially it was seen as a burden because of the amount of work that is involved, but at the end of the day it is a very useful tool. It is a major benefit to every company because all the production areas can be controlled in the same way whereas previously everyone did what they thought was best,” he explains.

By the end of December all of Delassus's groves will be certified and the company believes it was the first company in Morocco to gain certification last year. “Certification increases the possibilities for the UK market,” Bennani-Smires says, “because it is much more sensitive to certification than any other market in Europe. But it is not necessarily easy to comply. Although we don't need to use as many pesticides as producers in Spain do, it can be difficult to meet labour requirements in Morocco because of the amount of training that is involved.”

There are, says Bennani-Smires, two or three groups who are leading the way in terms of gaining EurepGAP certification, although the percentage of those companies looking to gain certification is not yet a big percentage of the whole, but as Pearson points out, it is vital the UK market is lucrative enough to make these advancements pay. “I hope the UK market can give the level of sales this season that is needed,” he says. “Improved sales, packaging and grading all come at a cost which needs to be realised. Prices can sometimes be low here because of the intense amount of competition that is involved.”

The US market is proving increasingly valuable, says Bennani-Smires. “Although it can be a very rewarding market it can also be very demanding in terms of its requirements. The size of Moroccan citrus and the timing of it are both perfect for the US, but if produce is not 100 per cent ripe when it arrives in the US, then poor quality can undermine everything.”

The worst competition in terms of price, says Pearson is Morocco itself. “The Moroccans end up competing with each other,” he says. “Moroccan product has a reputation for reliability but that means that the market can be inundated with produce which only serves to de-stabilise prices. We need to get the price right for 2004 - that's the most important thing.”

The quality of this year's clementine harvest is reported to be excellent, although Bennani-Smires admits it will be a short season in terms of predicted tonnages. “Overall we've got a lot better quality and the pack-out rate is smaller than usual,” he says. “There was a lot of rain at the start of the season although I do not think we experienced as much rain as Spain. But for us this caused a slightly later start.”

This year's navel oranges are expected to gain good prices and, says Bennani-Smires quality is good enough for the company to be selective about the fruit that is sent for export. Moroccan clementines, says Bristol Fruit Sales salesman Mike Jones, are already gaining good prices at wholesale and Fruco's sales manager Dave Gilbert adds that eating quality is very high. “The first arrivals of clementines came in earlier than normal,” says Gilbert. “They do tend to be expensive so in that sense they can be an acquired taste. You can buy Spanish product for a pound a box cheaper but at the end of the day people are prepared to pay that little bit extra for it.”

The rest of the Moroccan citrus season is expected to go as planned, says Pearson. “Navels will be here before Christmas and should be good quality. Last year early arrivals weren't great and the shipping programme was more spasmodic, but boosted by an increase in container freight. That was the single most notable change in recent years and this will continue as more disciplined shipping procedures take place. The Moroccan citrus season lasts for seven months and producers are very committed to the UK and to filling the holes which existed last year,” he says. “The continuity factor is very important.”

Although Spain remains a strong competitor, Morocco continues to be a much-valued UK supplier. Benani-Smires concludes: “Morocco gives a reliable alternative source for citrus and the UK retailers understand that. We can provide a steady flow of citrus and can provide a certain security when other supply problems are experienced.”