The UK is increasing the level of support it offers food exporters through free trade agreements, practical advice and knowledge-sharing, a senior government minister insisted today (13 December).

David Heath, UK minister for environment, food and rural affairs, said the country's government was "absolutely committed" to helping the sector grow.

"One of the key missions that was given to both the Secretary of State [Owen Paterson] and myself when we took office was to grow the British economy within our sector. I think for those of you that have looked at what the Chancellor had to say in the quarterly statement will recognise that there is a package of measures which support growth," Heath told a conference held by the UK Food and Drink Exporters Association.

Heath said the Government has drawn up a plan to develop exports and had made progress on fostering free-trade relationships with countries including China and Russia.

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also helping to push through more regional products for protected status in the EU. Heath said four products recently gained protected status, bringing the total to 50, with 50 more applications pending. The EU is in negotiations with China to establish an agreement on protected status products, the minister revealed.

However, he also acknowledged there is further work to be done in order for the UK to "achieve its potential" on the international stage.

Heath said the UK government should offer exporting companies a similar level of support as is provided by other national governments, providing information on areas such as health certification requirements for animal and animal derived products.

"We have got to be as good as our competitor nations in providing that sort of support. We have got to be able to provide that same level of service,” he said. "The whole ministerial team is committed to promoting your industry. My predecessor and the Secretary of State have attended trade shows and I intend to continue that valuable work next year. We are working with [government department] UK Trade & Investment to identify our priority markets but we have also commissioned some research to allow us to prioritise. I for one certainly intend to do more."

Heath said the Government and food industry needs to "work together" in order to capitalise on the progress that has already been made. "We need to begin exporting more to the markets that have opened. For instance, supporting beef and lamb to Russia and pork to China. We need to encourage and help more SMEs explore export opportunities and what they can learn from people who have already done it. People who have already been successful."

To this end, Heath revealed the Government has worked with larger exporting companies, who have "blazed the trail" and Defra intends to filter this know-how down to smaller SMEs to facilitate their entry into new markets.

"I particularly want to see more cross government work in collaboration with industry. So when we identify barriers to trade we can remove them if at all possible. That is sometimes something where government engagement is essential."

In order to develop the government's agenda, Heath said the Department would "work with industry" to "shape policy" and encourage knowledge-sharing in the sector.

"We are working very closely with some very big companies in this country, who are major exporters," Heath told just-food. "We are developing a relationship with those companies which means we can listen to what they are telling us about breaking into new markets. The advantage of doing that is we can use the expertise that they have developed and the experiences that they encountered first and trickle that down to smaller companies so that they don't have to break the same ground. To me that is an obvious thing to do: to effectively allow small companies to ride on the coat tails of the bigger companies who have the infrastructure to allow them to break new markets... It is getting the balance right. We are working very closely with the big players but by using their experience we can help a lot of the smaller companies. And the smaller companies are where the big growth is going to come from, I am convinced of that."