DEFRA’s food export policy to China under fire

By Matt Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Leadsom (left) with ’s Elsa Fairbanks and Nairn’s Oatcake’s Kate Birrell
Leadsom (left) with ’s Elsa Fairbanks and Nairn’s Oatcake’s Kate Birrell
Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom’s plan to export more British food and drink products to China has been criticised by a panel of industrialists from the sector, members of which claimed even the most experienced exporters would struggle to break into the competitive Asian market.

Leadsom proposed exporting to China “to make a real success of Brexit”. ​The government would be looking to manufacturers to take more British brands to new markets, she said.

“There are two very big reasons why China is a great place to invest at this time,”​ Leadsom said, speaking at the Food & Drink Exporters Association’s (FDEA’s) Network Forum held in London on December 14. “First, there’s a growing ​[Chinese] middle class in a population of 1.4bn, with a real hunger for high quality products.”

China was also an economy developing at an astonishing rate, Leadsom remarked. It was expected to become the world’s largest food and drink importer by 2018, she said. That meant massive opportunities for manufacturers, she added.

Questioned Leadsom’s ambitions

But industry representatives at the event questioned Leadsom’s ambitions, claiming it wasn’t so easy to enter the Chinese market.

The panel, made up of food manufacturers and representatives of other organisations from the sector, doubted the Chinese market would be able to replace the EU’s 500M consumers after Brexit – a market that represents around 60% of all UK food and drink exports.

The FDEA director Elsa Fairbanks said: “There’s only a small percentage of​ [people that would buy British products].

“I’m sure they will buy premium beer​ [for example], but not to the same extent that people closer to home would.”

Walkers Shortbread md James Walker said his Scottish shortbread firm had been trying to sell into China for 20 years, but found it an extremely difficult nut to crack.

‘Twice as competitive’

“It’s twice as competitive as any other country in the world,”​ Walker said. “It’s tough for an experienced existing exporter; it’s certainly not a market for the novice exporter.”

China was planning to introduce new regulations for its imports in autumn 2017, Tim Render, deputy director of the Great British Food Unit at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), revealed.

While the exact details of the new rules were still unclear, Render said manufacturers should be “keeping an eye on that information”.

Leadsom’s plan to grow Chinese markets came after DEFRA hosted Chinese beef inspectors in November. The inspectors visited an abattoir in Surrey to assess British animal welfare standards, as British beef exports to China​ moved a step closer.

Meanwhile, Leadsom again highlighted the potential of food exports to China​ in her keynote address to the Oxford Farming Conference this week.

Related topics: Markets, China, Supply chain