Philippe Binard, general delegate of Freshfel

The fresh produce sector and policymakers need to find innovative and long-term ways to increase consumption of fresh produce. Freshfel’s Annual Consumption Monitor confirms a declining trend, equivalent to one piece of fruit or vegetables per person per day in the last decade. Besides, only six member states match the minimum daily 400g threshold per person recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Last week in Milan, the EGEA conference was a landmark opportunity for scientists, doctors, decision makers and industry representatives to discuss remedies to this alarming trend and its related severe health consequences.

Changing lifestyle, (lack of) convenience or accessibility are among the drivers of this consumption decline. However, prices are often mentioned as the main inhibitor for consumption.

Such misperception needs to be denounced and challenged. Among the different food categories, fresh produce is one of the most affordable. The price difference per kg between fruit and vegetables and other food is significant. Besides, a diet with five daily servings could be achieved by spending no more than two or three euros (£1-2).

Regrettably, unhealthy food ubiquity and its heavy advertisement, and the negative long-lasting consequences of the CAP, which heavily subsidised raw products leading to food rich in fats, salt and sugar, deeply influenced consumers to favour unhealthy food choices.

To reverse eating habits towards healthier options, fiscal interventions and incentives might be urgently considered. Fruit and vegetable vouchers as incentive for consumers to eat healthier or taxation of unhealthy food options are instruments to be explored along with the removal of taxes on fresh produce. An EU voucher scheme might stimulate consumption among the most deprived part of the population. The EU agriculture budget should be reviewed in depth, ending years of discrimination between the main beneficiaries (cereals, beef or dairy, sugar) and fruit and vegetables (currently only receiving three per cent).

The fresh produce sector is “noble” and should not be downgraded. Its value is not negotiable, even for the purpose of public health. Behind the produce, there is a value chain and a sector that needs to remain sustainable. Moreover, fresh produce prices at consumer level today are (minus inflation) generally not higher than 15 years ago, staying competitive despite the rise of costs affecting the production process.

It is time for radical and long-term policy changes moving towards a positive discrimination for healthy food. Politicians, eager to make savings in their budget, should be reminded that unhealthy eating with insufficient intake of fresh fruit and vegetables leads to rising social security costs, which exceeding €200 billion (£145bn) every year!