Natural Foods Merchandiser

Postcard from New Zealand

Picture a pair of islands where the water, sky and land have never been polluted and the nearest neighbor is more than 1,000 miles away. Imagine they have rolling green hills nourished by year-round rains, moderate temperatures and abundant sunshine. Sheep outnumber humans 10-to-1, and the humans who live there are fiercely protective of this land’s natural resources. What sounds like a dream is actually New Zealand, a country ready to break onto the natural products scene in a big way.

“The vast majority of products from New Zealand are natural because there’s so little intervention in their production,” says Kelly Duffy, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s sector lead in Los Angeles for foods and beverages. “By and large, New Zealand is free of genetically modified organisms. There certainly is no use of [recombinant bovine growth hormones like] rBST. Antibiotics are only used on an as-needed basis. Because the animals are out wandering around, breathing fresh air and not in factory farms, they don’t spread disease.”

Those views may explain why New Zealand exports to the U.S. from January to June 2009 totaled more than $1.7 billion, according to Statistics New Zealand. SNZ reports the top food export categories to the U.S. in 2009 were meat, dairy, eggs, honey, beverages, fish and seafood, fruits and nuts. Here, we take a look at some of the foods in these categories and the reasons for their popularity.

From butter, cheese and ice cream to powdered milk proteins, dairy is New Zealand’s biggest international export. What’s the appeal? “It comes back to the quality of the grass and the water” used to feed the dairy animals, says Kathryn MacDonnell, sales and marketing manager for Blue River Dairy in Invercargill, New Zealand, which makes cheese and ice cream from sheep’s milk. “The milk is slightly sweeter, the color is creamier.” These characteristics carry through to its popular soft and hard cheeses. “We developed our pecorino as a table cheese,” MacDonnell says. “A lot of Pecorino Romano from Italy is grated and used in cooking [to add a salty flavor]. We don’t use as much salt. That comes from the New Zealand palate—we don’t use a lot of cheese in cooking; we like to eat it as it comes.”

For some, New Zealand lamb just tastes better. That may be because virtually every lamb is free range and grass fed on the island. “It’s the most cost-effective way to raise the livestock. The rain comes, the grass grows, the lambs go eat it,” says Andrew Atkins, president of Atkins Ranch, a Fremont, Calif.-based cooperative comprising hundreds of New Zealand sheep ranchers. In the U.S., he says, “some livestock might be free range for a portion of their lives, but [typically] the last period is an intensive feedlot situation. We don’t feedlot in New Zealand.” And that makes a difference in the flavor profile as well. The lambs stay leaner, giving them what New Zealand Trade and Enterprises’ Duffy calls a more robust flavor. “You can actually taste clover in New Zealand lamb,” she says.

Manuka honey
Honey has been used topically to heal wounds since the days of Aristotle. Manuka honey—a darker, less sweet syrup derived from the manuka trees that dot New Zealand’s coastline—has very high levels of antimicrobial activity, outperforming other honeys 2-to-1 in fighting E. coli and other bacteria, according to researchers at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. “It can work at high temperatures and still retain its enzyme activity,” says David Noll, owner of Pacific Resources, a Carpinteria, Calif., importer of New Zealand products. Other honeys start to lose their effectiveness at 62 degrees or higher. “People are looking to treat themselves instead of going to the doctor for every little thing,” says Noll, who adds that sales of his manuka honey have more than doubled for the past three years.

New Zealand’s cool climate allows for extended ripening of grapes—and flavor—on the vine, says Michael Wentworth, marketing manager for Yealands Estate wines in Blenheim, New Zealand. “This typically results in the production of intense, fruit-driven wines,” with a unique terroir reflecting their favorable growing conditions, he says. “While the wines have prominent fruit, the ‘finish’ is typically dry.” That combination has proved popular in the U.S., where in a year’s time the company has achieved distribution in 30 states.

Sure, the Kiwis send us kiwis. But what you may not know is they also export apples. The hybrid known as Jazz was cultivated to offer the crunch of Braeburns and the sweetness of Galas while also withstanding the rigors of shipping. “New Zealand apples are sold in North America during the spring and summer months, when domestic apples have been in cold storage since the previous autumn. Savvy consumers know the difference and select the fresh crop fruit,” says Karin Gardner, spokeswoman for The Oppenheimer Group, the North American marketer of ENZA apples and pears. Plus, she says, “A New Zealand apple sold during its spring/summer season could have a much smaller greenhouse gas contribution than a domestic apple that had been in storage for six months by that time.”

Specialty products
PCC Natural Markets in Washington and New York-based specialty food retailer Dean & Deluca are among U.S. stores that have signed on to carry fruit pastes from Rutherford & Meyer. “Americans are starting to understand more about what to do with fruit paste,” says Jan Meyer, co-owner of the Wellington, New Zealand-based gourmet food producer. This versatile, tangy paste is most commonly served with cheese and crackers, but Americans’ puzzlement is understandable. “No one in the United States is doing the type of product that we’ve done; no one is doing it with the number of flavors that we do it with,” Meyer says. “Ours is a far more sliceable product. We cook ours a lot less. We wanted to give it a more full, fresh-fruit flavor.”

Avocado oil
This oil, with its bright green color and nutty flavor, is something few Americans have tasted—yet. “We’re in the early stages of distribution in the United States,” says Bruce Lahood, spokesman for Grove Avocado Oil. “But we’re ready to pounce at any point.” High in monounsaturated fats, low in saturated fats, and rich in cholesterol-fighting sterols, as well as vitamins A, D, and E, some experts believe avocado oil is even healthier than olive oil. And with a smoke point above 500 degrees and infused flavors like lime and garlic, it can be used for cooking as well as for dipping.

Local considerations
The high quality of New Zealand products helps most U.S. consumers overlook the long distance that such foods travel to arrive in the store. According to a 2009 report that New Zealand Trade and Enterprise commissioned from Bellevue, Wash.-based market research firm The Hartman Group, “Concerns about food miles and/or carbon footprint typically [do] little to exclude a purchase, assuming quality criteria have been met.” And Karin Gardner, spokeswoman for The Oppenheimer Group, the North American marketer of ENZA apples and pears, says distance is just one component of carbon footprint. “Experts estimate that transportation contributes 2 percent to 10 percent of a food’s impact on the environment. We need to look at the entire supply chain, and consider the impact of everything from water use to fertilizer to packaging to storage and, ultimately, marketing.”

Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor who thinks a glass of New Zealand pinot noir sounds like the perfect end to a long day.

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