Lettuce Innovate You

by Julia Hall-Jones


Northern Irish company Willowbrook Foods recently hosted a ‘Leafy Salad Innovation Day’ to incorporate all businesses involved in leafy salads from the breeder to the consumer. The full day event, held at the Hilton Hampton Hotel, Corby, captured information from the leading breeders, growers, Willowbrook Foods (the processor) and UK foodservice company, Pauleys.

A debut event of its kind for Willowbrook Foods, the event was hosted to communicate new information about new leafy salads either already on the market or soon to appear to Willowbrook customers. World leading breeders and growers demonstrated the research & development processes, new technologies involved and the existing and future of lettuce breeding and growing worldwide.

Breeders speaking at the event included Shamrock Seed, Enza Zaden and Rijk Zwaan. With grower presentations from speciality produce company Jepco, Valefresco and Len Wright Salads.

Peter Summerton, Head of Sales at Willowbrook Foods commented, “The primary objective of the Leafy Salad Innovation Day was to bring together the key players in the industry – breeders, growers, processors and customers all of which are working towards the satisfaction of consumers.

‘It is important as a processor to keep conversant with consumer demands and identify key products to bring to market. We aim to provide innovative ideas to our customers who then pass the product on to the end user, be that in a retail store or on your dinner plate in a restaurant.”

With changes in the UK climate in recent years, breeders and growers have faced difficult episodes, in terms of providing solutions to create various lettuce seeds which will sustain the extreme weather conditions and also create greater robustness, colour and taste.

Willowbrook Foods’ Procurement Manager, Jonathan Magowan added, “Selecting leafy salad varieties which can sustain washing, drying and chilled haulage is vital. Yet we also have to look towards innovation, trialling new breeds and getting the right product to market.”

Recently the discussion about food waste has been prevalent in the media, with lettuce being one of the most heavily wasted products in our supermarkets and restaurants. According to Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) 2012 figures over 100 tonnes of leafy salads and lettuce were wasted in the UK. The Leafy Salad Innovation event enabled an opportunity for Willowbrook Foods discussed the opportunities to provide solutions to waste, hence providing a more positive experience with purchasing and eating lettuce. The opportunity to provide tastier and more desired lettuce leaves for restaurants and catering companies was a key discussion to support healthier eating and recognising lettuce as a healthy meal option and not just a garnish.

With new leafy salad products being trialled all over the world there are many opportunities to enhance the consumption of lettuce as an edible fresh food product and not just a garnish on a plate.

The event was not just informative but educational on the process of breeding the right seed right through to the processing of the product. Feedback from the event was positive, Richard Walker, Director of Specialist Sales at Pauleys, commented that there was “clear evidence that everyone is joined up supporting successful crop management and development.”

The development work is ongoing with extreme field and factory trials programmed throughout the year. John McCann, Managing Director of Willowbrook Foods added, “Innovation is at the heart of all activity at Willowbrook Foods. We must be at the forefront of development across all categories we operate in. In 2011 we opened our Food Innovation Centre and in order to complement our activities in salad production we will also drive innovation through our ‘Willowbrook Fine Foods’ semi-ready meals and meal accompaniment division which is scheduled to launch in the Autumn this year.”

As well as breeders and growers, other participants include senior representatives from foodservice operations including the UK’s leading fast food providers, caterers and chefs. The next stage of the innovation process will be to visit the growers and view the crops growing. 

For further information contact Leanne Rice on 028 9754 1603 or email leanne@willowbrookfoods.co.uk