After years of relying on lamb, beef, apples and dairy produce, New Zealand is busy applying sound scientific research, innovative technology and smart marketing know-how to make their best even better. With the food industry generating 51% of the country’s export income, horticulture is bringing home the nation’s bacon. Tracey Barker explains how.

Mention New Zealand and chances are that images of undulating lush pastures liberally sprinkled with sheep and apple laden orchards are not far from your mind.

However, statistics show that in the country where sheep once outnumbered people 20 to one, New Zealand’s famous flock is in decline, and the country’s food industry is moving away from the base commodities it was once famous for and is fast gaining a reputation for innovative, value-added, gourmet style food items aimed at a sophisticated world market.

Earning NZ$1.6bn (US$888.7m) in exports to the year ending June 2002, horticulture remains a vital ingredient in the country’s economy. But while apples and pears continue to be a big seller, today New Zealand’s produce extends far beyond the traditional lunchbox favourites.

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Established in 1997 Delica (NZ) scooped a Trade New Zealand award for achieving annual export sales NZ$50m in 2001.

Comprising four international marketing companies whose key markets include Australia, Europe, Japan and North America, the company’s 35 lines extends from conventional carrots to the exotica of subtropical fruits like feijoas and figs.

Attributing its success to ‘thinking outside the square’, Delica have become ‘vertically integrated’ by growing and packing core items such as asparagus and blueberries as well as exporting. The skills of multilingual key personnel, such as director Sarah McCormack’s fluency in Japanese, is also cited as being instrumental in attaining success within the global marketplace.

Feeling the squeeze

The country’s abundant produce is also being peeled, pulped and pulverised into a seemingly inexhaustible array of items guaranteed to satisfy the most discerning gourmet.

Michael Mellon, managing director of Bush Road, a leading processor of superior quality fruit concentrates, is currently developing New Zealand-grown Japanese speciality umeboshi salted plums along with a range of fruit vinegars.

“We do interesting things with fruit,” says the self effacing kiwi, “and if someone wants something special then we try and formulate it.”

Oil appeal

With an estimated 750,000 olive trees, New Zealand has been producing olive oil since 1995. However, hot on the heels in this burgeoning niche industry is the deliciously green avocado oil.

Established in 1998, Olivado New Zealand began life as a commercial olive grove and processing facility. Subsequent evaluation of the timescale needed to show a return on investment coupled with an increasing awareness of the adulteration of extra-virgin olive oils led the company to initiate research into avocado oil.

“We are having to become very innovative in foods and I believe that Olivado New Zealand is among the vanguard in this new revolution. For, not only have we developed a new type of food, we have also developed a template for starting up a company from scratch,” comments marketing director John Ellegard.

Using traditional cold-pressed methods the company produced over 80,000 litres in its first season and has the future capacity to produce 1.5million litres annually.

Beefing it up abroad

The number of sheep may be declining but a sizeable part of the country’s economy continues to ride on the back of meat production.

Frustration at low returns and a desire to utilise non-prime cuts led former farmers Erik and Anna Arndt to develop their Aria Farms business. Working in association with the Meat Institute of New Zealand, the Arndts discovered a new way of binding meat with a seaweed extract and in 1999 they sold the farm to launch their lamb, beef and chicken ‘chips’ products locally.

Today Aria Farm products are set to reach an additional 420 million consumers after signing a multi-million dollar deal to take their product into Britain and Europe.

Value adding venison

Recent BSE scares in Europe boosted sales of New Zealand venison to an all-time high. Last year 15,691 tonnes were exported, with 85-90% going to Europe.

Award-winning chef and deer farmer Graham Brown is employed by the industry to travel throughout Europe promoting the versatility of the meat to food industry professionals.

Mat Moyes of Deer Industry New Zealand says that ‘modern, urban restaurants’ are being targeted with the aim of repositioning the product.

“New Zealand farm-raised venison does not have the ‘gamey’ flavour of wild venison, and can be used in modern, global cuisine styles such as Asian and fusion cuisine,” he says.

Specialist solutions

Disillusioned by standard supermarket offerings former chef Angus Allan founded Naked Organics two years ago. Specialising in gourmet aiolis, mayonnaises and pestos aimed to “widen peoples’ palates,” Allan is currently exploring marketing his delectable range in Asia and the US.

Spotting a similar gap in the market led husband and wife team Tim and Rebecca Douglas-Clifford to create Eat Right Foods, a company producing allergy sensitive cakes and cookies.

Rebecca says their vision was to “develop unique, tasty and fun foods for people on health related restricted diets using certified organic ingredients whenever possible.”

The Eat Right Foods range – now available in Singapore – is suitable for those suffering from a wide range of allergies and intolerances including gluten, dairy, egg, nuts and soy.

Mussel power

With New Zealand hoki being acknowledged as an eco-friendly alternative to northern hemisphere cod and haddock, and the country’s farmed salmon scoring heavily on quality & traceability, fish and shellfish are yet another sector exhibiting promise.

However the prize for star potential goes to perna canaliculus – a low fat, high protein native mussel which generated NZ$185m in exports in 2002.

With over fifteen years experience in marketing New Zealand food products, Bill Floyd believes the country “needs to decommoditise its products through increased functionality and interesting form” – and that the greenlipTM mussel typifies this.

“The mussel is unique to New Zealand and more than 90% of the annual harvest is processed into user-friendly form before being exported to more than 60 countries,” he says.

Big cheese

While New Zealand’s ‘clean green’ image undeniably contributes to the positive reception of its produce, one disadvantage lies with the country’s remote geographic location.

One company rising to the challenge with aplomb is Kapiti Cheeses. Established in 1984, the manufacturer of speciality cheeses and premium ice creams now has an annual turnover of NZ$22m with key markets in Japan, Australia, Singapore, USA and Thailand.

“As a company we try hard to differentiate by way of product innovation, branding and service so that price is not the sole consideration from the customer’s perspective,” says company founder and executive director Ross MacCallum.

Bill Floyd agrees: “If you are creating products and eating experiences that are unique: where the sum of the palate and emotional consumer experience is more than the individual parts, the freight costs are not a make or break.”

Recipe for success

After years of relying on basic commodities, New Zealand’s food industry is now formulating a new recipe for success.

With far-sighted individuals combining scientific research with innovative marketing and cutting-edge technology the result is self-evident – New Zealand is power-packed with potential.

What is more, you get the distinct feeling that they’ve only just begun.