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Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. has established a new business unit - Driscoll's of Europe - in order to better serve the marketing needs of retail and foodservice customers on the European continent.

The new company is headquartered in Breda, the Netherlands, and Theo Houwen has been named managing director of Driscoll's of Europe. Previously, he served as director of Northern Europe for Bonduelle Groupe, a manufacturer of fresh and processed vegetables, and has been in the food industry in Europe for 19 years.

Driscoll is making a "substantial commitment" in both dollars and effort toward its European initiative, Soren Bjorn, Driscoll's senior vice president of international and business development, told The Produce News March 4.

Driscoll's of Europe will market Driscoll's proprietary strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries under the "Driscoll's" brand throughout continental Europe. The parent company in Watsonville, CA, will have controlling interest in Driscoll's of Europe and will provide its program of breeding proprietary berries specifically adapted to growing conditions in the European continent and North Africa.

The key initiatives for Driscoll's of Europe will be to grow proprietary varieties, concentrate on "Driscoll's" brand recognition, offer 52 weeks of availability of its berry patch to European customers and help its customers with category management, Mr. Bjorn said.

In the United States, consumers may well know Driscoll's name but typically wouldn't know its proprietary berries by a variety name. This can also be true of Driscoll's buyers. That circumstance differs from the European experience.

"Europe markets by variety," Mr. Bjorn said. Driscoll will market its strawberries under the "Driscoll's" brand in Europe, which has not been done before, he said. Driscoll has "pretty good brand recognition" at the trade level in Europe, but no name recognition to consumers there, he said.

"This marks the start of brand building in Europe," Mr. Bjorn said. "It's a different level of commitment."

For instance, Driscoll's Jubilee variety strawberry, grown in the United Kingdom, launched five or six years ago and is the No. 1 strawberry sold in the United Kingdom today, Mr. Bjorn said.

The Jubilee variety is considered a "super premium" variety - the top rung of the United Kingdom's three levels of berry categorizing. Driscoll's Magdalena strawberry variety, grown in Spain, previously sold only in Spain and Portugal. In 2009, the Magdalena variety "went commercial in California and Europe," he said.

Currently, Driscoll's European focus will be on growing conventional strawberries, as Mr. Bjorn said that demand for organic berries in Europe has not been particularly strong.

Driscoll breeds only strawberries in Europe. Its Northern European breeding program is based in the United Kingdom, and its Southern European breeding program is based in Spain. Previously, American varieties were moved to Europe, but under the new European program new European varieties will have a chance to come into North America. New berry varieties in Europe will have "back-and-forth interaction of genetics" with North America, Mr. Bjorn said.

Driscoll grows strawberries, raspberries and blueberries in Morocco, and it also grows strawberries in Egypt. Once the European season starts, the winter harvest season ends in Morocco and Egypt. Driscoll's expanded efforts in Europe will allow it to take its winter production in northern Africa and expand sales to the Middle East and Southeast Asia rather than have those berries go to processing, Mr. Bjorn said.

Flavor has always been at the top of the list for Driscoll followed by concerns such as yields and shelf life. The European program will "have the same priority," Mr. Bjorn said.

Driscoll's of Europe succeeds Berry Gardens Limited, a partnership between Driscoll's, SAT Ltda. Alconeras (a group of Spanish berry producers) and KG Growers Limited that established a presence in the European market during the past several years.

Alconeras remains a minority shareholder in Driscoll's of Europe and will be a supplier of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries from Spain and Morocco.

"Through Berry Gardens Limited, we will continue to work with KG Growers in the United Kingdom," Mr. Bjorn said.

Driscoll Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Miles Reiter said that the company envisions its people "working even more closely together in the years ahead as Driscoll's of Europe makes an important contribution to Driscoll's overall strategic plan."