Vegebe, evolved via frozen vegetables into the voice of the entire Belgian fruit and vegetable processing industry.
It was the Americans who first looked into the method of preserving using fast freezing that went to the core of the food. Bacteria and other living organisms that live in food and cause rotting are not killed by the process but are brought to a standstill, literally 'frozen’.
Belgium was first introduced to this freezing technique when the Germans built a number of deepfreeze units for fruit and vegetables during WWII. However it took until the nineteen fifties until the first Belgian frozen products turned up. The great expansion occurred ten years later in our country stimulated by a few large brands and with the cooperation of the growing supermarket chains. Soon there was a core of family frozen food companies in the Belgian vegetable region, South-West Flanders, most of which are concentrated in the region of Roeselare. The story starts in 1965 with the first company that started to produce frozen vegetables. Since then the number of frozen vegetable companies has increased to 12. Together they are responsible for over a quarter of the European production of frozen vegetables. All these companies are characterised by a family structure that forms the basis of their establishment and a strong tie with agriculture. After all, the sector evolved from the agricultural sector and the vegetable wholesale trade.
The greater part of the supply of raw materials for the frozen vegetable sector is guaranteed by contract farming. The rest is purchased through the specialised wholesale sector. Peas, beans and carrots constitute the lion’s share of the production. In addition, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts are also important. Every year, the total production of frozen vegetables amounts to almost 800,000 tons.
The enormous expansion of the sector was initially made possible by the increasing consumer demand for refinement and variation in his eating pattern. What is more: the desire to invest of the (primarily family) businesses and the availability of raw materials naturally also played an important role.
The realisation of a European internal market with 27 member states and the trade agreements with third countries are enormously important for this sector, after all 90% of the production is destined for export.
In 1980 the individual companies join forces in the Federation of Vegetable-Processing Companies (Verbond van Groenteverwerkende Bedrijven - Vegebe). Seventeen years later the organisation was joined by VIGEX, the federation of the wholesalers in fruit and vegetables and the secretariat moved from Roeselare to Brussels.
At the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century, Vegebe moved to Lokeren, where together with Belgapom, the Belgian association for the potato trade and processing, and Fresh Trade Belgium, the importers and exporters of fresh fruit and vegetables, the secretariat activities were housed in a joint FVPhouse. But the federation’s registered office did remain in Brussels.
In the meantime the vegetable preserving companies also joined Vegebe in 2000. The preservation of food in glass pots and tin cans after sterilisation stems from a French invention at the beginning of the 19th century, that was further developed above for military purposes.
The preservation technique increased the shelf life of food, including vegetables, and increased availability during the entire year. Just like frozen vegetables, the preserve sector can put the vegetables into the preservation process at the height of their freshness. After all, it is well known that vegetables fresh from the garden quickly lose their vitamins and nutritional value.
This industry with its rich tradition in (West) Flanders, with Marie Thumas as its flagship, had to restructure in the nineteen eighties. In West Flanders their place was taken by the new frozen vegetable sector. Even today the vegetable preserve sector remains active in the Kempen and Limburg, where new products are also developed in addition to the traditional vegetable preserves.
Since 2008 the fruit and vegetable cutting plants have also joined Vegebe. This still very young sector consists predominantly of family SMEs with agricultural roots, who offer a reply to consumer demand for fresh convenience products. For the cutting plants, that work with a shorter retention period of their end product, it is the domestic market that is above all important. Convenience is the buzz word for both the retail and catering sector for this young product, which is on the up and up.
The federation of vegetable-processing companies was in the first instance founded to keep the purchasing policy of the industry as uniform as possible with regard to quality requirements, a framework for contracts and acceptance standards. To this, cooperation was also started up with the agricultural organisations which led to an own arbitration scheme.
Today, operations also focus on topics that affect the entire sector such as the environment, employment, quality-improvement initiatives, food safety, traceability, hygiene and technology. In the area of the environment, attention is above all paid to the use of fertilisers with an eye to a reduced nitrate content and the proper use of crop protection products, to the treatment of waste water, the issue of packaging and waste, the use of secondary materials (animal feed and fertilisation) and to the groundwater problem. Recently cooperation also started in the area of generic promotion of frozen and preserved vegetables.
Quality policy and specialisation is also being worked on by the companies. After all, quality is part of the expectations of distribution and consumer and specialisation is a necessity for whoever wants to keep their company competitive. The government has also got involved in the debate on food safety by founding the FAVV Federal Agency for Food Safety. The vegetable sector turned out to be one of the driving forces behind a sector-wide approach using Vegaplan’s ICQM standard and the self-inspection guide AGF for trade and processing. This approach is unique: after all it tries to integrate the government’s (self-inspection) initiatives, based on European and Belgian legislation, in commercial quality systems such as BRC, IFS, HACCP etc.
With regard to social economic affairs, the vegetable-processing industry plays an undisputable role: about 2,500 blue-collar and 350 white-collar workers are directly employed in the vegetable industry sector. The indirect employment in agriculture and horticulture, transport companies and trade is estimated at +/- 5,000 units.
Vegebe is the voice of the employers in the vegetable-processing industry on joint industrial committees 118 and 220.
To maintain the position it has acquired, the vegetable-processing industry must constantly continue to invest in product innovation, quality and the environment, hygiene and technology. Cooperation with research centres is essential for this. Training and employment initiatives offer additional opportunities to strengthen the employee framework of these growth companies.
Vegebe is an active partner in various research projects in cooperation with universities and polytechnics. Since the foundation of various grower organisations that can call on the resources in the Common Market Organisation (CMO) for fruit and vegetables, research related to cultivation has shifted to these structures. Vegebe now focuses its joint research projects on topics such as food safety, quality and the environment. An example of this is the VLAG project, which in cooperation with the University of Ghent and making use of IWT support from 2004 to 2008 coordinated application-oriented technological research into the vitamin content of preserved vegetables from the field to the plate.
Everyone agrees that eating fruit and vegetables is essential for good heath. Despite all the efforts of the fruit and vegetable sector to stimulate this, the (national & European) consumption figures show a constant drop in the amounts of fruit and vegetables eaten. Together with the Netherlands and France, Vegebe carried out a promotion project in cooperation with VLAM between 2006 and 2008 about the topic of 'convenient vegetables’, which was co-financed by the Flemish and European governments.
Vegebe can depend on a network of organisations which makes it possible to achieve its objectives in various domains.
Vegebe’s full-time secretariat is run within FVPhouse together with Belgapom and Fresh Trade Belgium.
Vegebe is a member of FEVIA, the federation of the food industry and the SME organisation UNIZO. Through these channels Vegebe is part of various organisations such as the Joint Industrial Committee for the Food Industry, OVOCOM, VLIMO and various other consultation platforms of the federal and regional governments.
Vegebe also closely collaborates with VOKA West Flanders through its office in Roeselare.
Both the Agro front (the Belgian agricultural organisations Boerenbond, ABS and FWA) and the government can be approached on behalf of the entire vegetable sector via the OVPG (consultation platform for the processors of and traders in vegetable raw materials and products).
Vegebe represents the Belgian vegetable-processing sector within PROFEL (European organisation of the fruit and vegetable processing industry). In addition to compiling statistical information, PROFEL is active in the area of generic promotion, the European CMO for fruit and vegetables and the problem of recognition and MRLs of crop protection products. PROFEL is also a member of the federation of the European food industry, Food Drink Europe (FDE).