Blog: Dean BestANUGA 2013: UK companies' reaction to government export push

Dean Best | 10 October 2013

The UK government this week launched an "action plan" to help boost the country's food and drink exports, a move largely welcomed by British exhibitors at industry trade show Anuga.

Since Food From Britain, the government agency set up to promote the country's food exports was closed in 2009, the debate has raged over how the UK should push its wares overseas.

The current coalition government has often emphasised how important the UK's food manufacturing sector is to the country's recovery - and how vital success in export markets is to both the industry's and the nation's economic performance.

Some UK food manufacturers have praised the Government's efforts to help exporters, notably the assistance that another agency, UK Trade & Investment, can provide within markets. Others have glanced nervously at the likes of Ireland, Germany and Spain - and competitors further afield like Canada - and the work they are doing to boost their industries on the world stage, notably key emerging markets like China. Such nervousness has perhaps grown after a year of flat exports in 2012.

On Sunday (6 October), the UK government launched what it called the "food and drink international action plan", which it claims could provide a GBP500m boost to the economy.

"There are huge opportunities for British food companies to export all over the world and I'm determined to help our firms exploit them," Owen Paterson, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said.

The plan includes the creation of "one team" across government and industry to drive exports and a "single, strong UK brand identity", the Government said.

UK exhibitors at the Anuga trade show in Cologne seemed to welcome the move. Eblex, the organisation that represents beef and lamb farmers in England, was involved in drawing up the plan and held a roundtable that Paterson attended on Saturday to discuss the measures.

Jean-Pierre Garnier, export manager at Eblex, said government help was vital for UK businesses looking to break into new markets, as has been shown in the recent new trade deal in the sector between Britain and Russia.

"We could not, for example, gain market access to Russia, that's what they government has to do and it has got to be done at a very high level. Their input is not only the time and the resources behind, it is as well to open the door," he said. "When you see the Irish, for example, they would not send one minister, they would send a whole pack of them."

Adam Sopher, co-founder and director of UK snack maker Joe & Seph's Popcorn, said the move "made sense". He said: "All it is is about putting all the right people into all the right places at the same time and giving them the opportunity to meet."

He praised the work of UKTI, which had helped him set up at meetings at the show, the first major international event for Joe & Seph's.

Nina Slattery, founder of another UK snack business, New York Delhi, is a supporter of UKTI and said the support of the agency and the new plan was "fantastic".

She did, however, suggest the Government could do more to help UK businesses break into China.

"What I'd like is maybe more to be done with China because the opportunities are vast. The frustration with me is that there is nervousness in entering the market because some can be unscrupulous," she said. "Having said that, our attitude is also yes, nine out of ten might actually want to take a bag, copy it, and do a watered down version of what we do. However, we are chasing that one that wants the real McCoy because there is an absolutely unsatiable desire to have premium top-end brands in China. They want the European brands and they know British ones are iconic.

Over at Karro Food Group, the UK-based pork business set up earlier this year after an MBO of Vion's UK pork assets, the moves are welcomed. Nevertheless, Karro commercial director Ian Hughes also noted the importance industry associations can still play in opening new markets.

"The government promoting British food abroad is a great thing and it's great for us as a relatively new business but quite a large business," he says.

"We have a product, in terms of its consistent specification, which delivers for quite a lot of the world markets that are very particular about what they get. We have a trade body - BPEX - that is active in those markets and that actually probably for us is a better route forward. I think we need that connectivity with the final user. If we understand that final user, we can tailor that product to the final user."

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