Few British shoppers realise it, but they are taking home more produce than ever before from Israeli fields, groves and orchards.

Of the £140m of produce imported into Britain by Agrexco and Mehadrin Tnuport Export, about three-quarters went on to shelves in the retail market, thanks to a constant striving for quality.

"It is a price-conscious market," says Amos Orr, the head of Agrexco UK, "so you can't just push produce through. We need to make people choose us for quality."

Rival exporter Mehadrin is also upbeat about prospects.

"We supply 85% of UK citrus," says the company's Yaron Szilas. "Our strength is in quality and in the Jaffa brand, which we have the licence to use all year round."

Israeli exporters are also muscling their way into category management roles on key lines.

For instance, Mehadrin works with South African growers in the TopGro joint venture, managing a fifth of Tesco's avocado sales. The same is true of peppers.

At the heart of this ambition is strong development of new varieties (see panel).

The wide range of altitude and climate enjoyed by the Middle Eastern country enables crops to be harvested for much of the year, rippling from the north to the south.

The British preference for exotic fruit also serves Israeli growers well. Avocado-growing regions around the Sea of Galilee are enjoing some of the strongest growth, on the back of strong investment from growers.

Newly developed water-recycling systems have enabled growers to expand the area under cultivation by about 400ha a year, which has increased production by 7% or 6,800 tonnes of fruit a year.

Not only are they ideally situated to produce a range of crops, from dragon fruit to pomelos, but they have the skills of the Vulcani Institute, an agricultural research organisation, to develop new


The pomegranate is finding favour in the UK because of its antioxidant properties. And although plenty of whole fruit is sold through retailers, prepacked pips are driving growth, because they're easier to eat.

Agrexco is now showing a black-skinned variety with softer seeds to buyers. But it will take at least three years before large volumes go on sale.

Meanwhile, breeding advances have extended the season from August to March and volumes nearly double every year.

The trend towards convenience foods is also driving shoppers towards easy-peel citrus, says Szilas.

"Fifteen years ago only 40% of the market was in satsumas and clementines; now it's more than 50%." He predicts another good year for Santina clementines and a new variety called Or Mor, which is very sweet.

Agrexco is also keen to sell the pomelo in the UK. The fruit resembles a giant green grapefruit, with very thick skin and a pithy layer around each segment.

But growers say it's just too "complicated" for the British market and a better bet would be the pomelo-grapefruit cross, called a Sweetie, which has proved very successful in Japan.

The country's melon exports have also risen dramatically. Most come from the arid Arava Valley, between the Red and Dead Seas in the south where growers are trying to return to the traditional taste of the fruit.

Israel is also keen to become a keen source of winter fruit and vegetables for the UK. Their season stretches from September to May and if its growers are to taste success they must produce top-quality fruit, says grower Ariel Immerman of Yahel Produce, as Arab and South American countries can produce more cheaply.

Israel's fig growers are now being encouraged to grow for export during the winter months only, because they cannot compete with Turkish and other figs on price during the summer.

"A new type of fig, Autumn Honey, an autumn-only variety with a high yield, has longer shelf life," says Oded Yackobson, of Agrexco. It is in Tesco and Marks & Spencer already.

Plenty of field and root vegetables are exported to the UK. Many potatoes, carrots, radish and parsnips are produced in the western Negev, from where most of Israel's famed new potato crop is lifted in January.

Some 98,000 tonnes of new potatoes were imported to the UK last year, and volumes are expected to increase in 2007.

Sweet potato is another growth crop. Demand is increasing by 30% a year, according to one grower, but sales are rising much faster - up to 40% a year - because Israel has been carving out a share of the European market with its sweeter Georgia Jet variety.

Agrexco supplies Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Somerfield, M&S and Waitrose but is targeting Tesco, which still buys sweet potato exclusively from the US.n