Hard sell post-Brexit for British food in Asia

Hard sell post-Brexit for British food in Asia

In Asia, discussing food is like discussing the weather – it can keep people talking for hours.

But when the BBC recently visited one of the region’s leading food and drink events, it became clear that there are some dishes that leave foodies speechless.

“English food?” asked a Thai woman with a bewildered pause. “Um… I’m not sure what it is. Is that, like, a sausage?”

A nearby Malaysian man was less hesitant to give his opinion: “Boring! Definitely nothing special,” he laughed.

These are sad words for British exporters, who were promised easy access to lucrative new markets after Brexit.

In 2021, to give one example, former International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told UK food producers they had a “golden opportunity” to get British food “to the top of the global food menu”.

The reality is that the UK still lags far behind its European counterparts, both in terms of sales and reputation.

“It’s a big job to educate people,” says Stephen Jones, managing director of cheese exporter Somerdale International.

From his booth at the FHA Food and Beverage Trade Show in Singapore, he introduced locals to strange-sounding cheeses like Stinking Bishop, Double Gloucester and Wensleydale.

“France, Switzerland, Italy – they’ve been doing it longer than us. We came a little late to deliver the message,” he added.

Seeing a group of South East Asian visitors trying out – and loving – Wensleydale for the first time certainly raised a smile. But the UK’s small pavilion is dwarfed by Italy’s show-stopping display, which sits nearby.

There you’ll find Michelin-starred chefs giving live cooking demonstrations, while Italy’s MasterChef winner chats away with his country’s ambassador. For Italy, besides being good for its economy, selling food to Asia has long been an act of diplomacy.

“Doing things like this is a big part of the job,” said Dante Brandi, who has been Italy’s ambassador to Singapore and Brunei since last year.

Speaking to the BBC under the Italian tricolor and the logo of his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Brandi explained how trade fairs have become part of the machinery of government.

“It’s an overall effort from what we call ‘Sistema Italia'”, he said. “The group of institutions all aim to promote our food, gastronomy and way of life, which we spread through our diplomatic and consular networks around the world.”

However, it is clear that this kind of success is not achieved overnight. For example, panettone is now a Christmas fixture in Singapore supermarkets. But the woman who originally introduced the festive dish to Southeast Asia said it took “years of activity, tasting and promotion” to finally get it on shelves here.

“Food is obviously a major export for Italy and something Italians are very proud of,” said Giuseppina Pravato of Jupiter 57, an Italian food shop in Singapore.

“We have a good relationship with the Italian institutions, but 20 years ago it was basically just me, bringing in hundreds of pieces of panettone and really just giving them away to anyone who would try them,” he added.

The gap between Britain and, in this case, Italy should not be surprising. For the most part, these are long-term issues, which predate Brexit or the current UK government, and speak to the country’s fundamental economic priorities.

Last year Italy exported more than €64.4bn (£55.4bn; $69.1bn) worth of food and drink globally, while the UK sold £24.4bn ($30.5bn). When you look at this figure as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), exporting food and drink is about three times more valuable to the Italian economy than to Britain.

Most British food exporters seem to take a pragmatic view of their position in the global food market. The issue, many argue, is that the government is not doing enough to match its rhetoric when it turns things around.

In fact, the UK delegation in Singapore told the BBC they could only attend because they paid out of their own pockets.

“Since 2019, we have not received any government money to help us attend shows like this,” said Karen Beston of the Food and Drink Exporters Association.

“It makes it very difficult to stand out compared to other European groups or other world groups that are almost entirely funded by their respective governments,” he added.

When this was put to the UK government by the BBC, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Promoting the interests of our farmers and food producers is a priority of our trade policy”.

Defra also pointed out that – although suppliers do not receive any direct public money to help them attend trade shows – last year it spent £1.6 million on events to promote British food sales, such as tastings and networking opportunities.

The UK currently exports £3.5bn ($4.4bn) worth of food and drink to Asia, an 18% increase since 2019. This is proof, British ministers will say, that Britain’s status as a “free trading nation” has given benefits to the country’s businesses since it left the European Union.

But over the same period, Italy’s exports to Asia rose by 36% to €6.1bn (£5.2bn; $6.6bn).

“Having a supportive government is really important,” said Italian Ambassador Brandi.

“But the main advantage we enjoy, together with other EU countries, is the free trade agreements we have with many important Asian countries,” he added.

Yet opportunities – whether golden or not – exist for British manufacturers after Brexit.

Over 60,000 people visited this year’s event in Singapore. By the start of the next decade, analysts estimate people in Asia will spend $8tn annually on food.

“The potential is huge,” said Japnit Singh, chief operating officer at Spire Research and Consulting in Singapore.

“A few years ago, there was a lot of emphasis on local food here. I used to say that would never change, but I was wrong. We are seeing a change in habits – people want to eat western food and they are willing to pay for it,” he added.

According to Mr Singh, rising incomes, increased travel and – importantly – social media have helped make Asian appetites more challenging.

Pursuing this market is central to the UK government’s post-Brexit trade strategy. Last year, Britain signed an agreement to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is a free trade agreement between 11 countries.

At the time, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed it as a demonstration of “the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms.”

However, the government’s own estimates say the deal will only add 0.08% to the size of the UK economy over ten years. In addition, it already has free trade agreements with all countries in the CPTPP, except for Malaysia and Brunei.

Although UK food exporters are being steered towards regions such as Asia, the current reality is that the EU market is still four times larger.

The problem is that trade with European countries is now increasingly fraught with post-Brexit issues. A recent estimate put the extra bureaucracy costs at £58m for exporters last year.

“Because of all the new regulations, it’s actually easier for us to sell to China than France – which is crazy,” said Somerdale International’s Mr Jones.

The UK government insists it is looking at the long-term picture. Last year, International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch told the BBC that the new market would not “replace EU trade”, but rather “complement” it.

“You wouldn’t buy a small company and expect it to be delivered the same day – we’re thinking about the potential,” he added.

When it comes to potential, Somerdale International’s Mr Jones agrees: “The Union Jack actually has a good reputation overseas when it comes to prestige and food safety, which is very important in China.”

After tasting the cheese, the Thai player who had been skeptical earlier responded with a wave of approval. For Mr Jones, this is all part of the education process – one part of Wensleydale at a time.

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