The phrase “like selling teas to India” is not a common expression, but it's a reality for the boom in British food and non-alcoholic drink export.
In a field of success stories, just one example is the Birmingham-born Typhoo Tea Ltd, which has focused chiefly on international markets, with surprising accomplishments in India and China.
Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), explains that this rise in global exports is mainly due to the power of the British brand, with its “reputation for quality”, and Britain “being a safe environment where food is produced”, giving global consumers confidence in British products.
Quaker Oats, Tyrrell's and The Anglesey Sea Salt Company are among many idiosyncratic British brands that have gone global, the latter reaching the pinnacle of success by producing the salt that seasons Barack Obama’s favourite caramels.
Leech highlights the great potential of the BRIC countries, with China topping the UK’s chart of fastest growing export markets last year, up 55 per cent since 2010.
She suggests that the reason for this is cultural. “In many developing markets, we’re seeing consumers changing their tastes rapidly, wanting more of Britain’s products as they move away from plant-based, rice-based diets to meat and dairy products.
"As these populations are becoming more affluent, they equate the foods we take for granted with a higher status of diet. It’s aspirational.”
This shift towards westernised diets, and the glowing reputation of British brands abroad, has resulted in food and drink exports increasing by 11.4 per cent in 2011 to £12.15bn, with the industry being the UK’s largest manufacturing sector.
Despite this, Leech admits the industry still has an image problem, particularly when it comes to employment. The public perception of manufacturing is that it is an industry solely for unskilled workers.
She adamantly contests this view. “This perception is not the reality. You can find a way into the food industry whether you have no qualifications or several degrees. The role may not be in manufacturing directly; it may be in marketing or research… We recognise that it’s our job to turn these perceptions around.”
One of the schemes FDF has been working on to recruit young people, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ support, is called Graduate Excellence. It will develop a new engineering degree to equip graduates with the skills to work in food and drink manufacturing.
They have also launched a campaign called Taste Success: A Future in Food, which, according to Leech, is dedicated to “busting the myths of what the food industry’s like”, aimed mainly at school pupils. It uses digital media – for example, a rather popular YouTube video called Chilli Baby that Leech laughs at every time.
She praises the “constructive relationship” Defra has built with FDF. Both institutions have a shared vision of 20 per cent growth by 2020, but there are still “very serious debates” to be had about how to feed a population of nine million people sustainably by 2050.
“We have to increase production and protect the environment,” she says, but acknowledges that Defra has to “steer a course for all stakeholders”, some of whom believe increasing food production is unnecessary.
Another challenge is to enthuse manufacturers to “be a bit more innovative and a bit braver” by exporting globally. Currently, she feels, their good profits from the domestic market provide them with “no incentive” to export, so she is looking to “challenge” those companies.
She wants MPs to help their local food SMEs expand by assisting them in networking with companies that have begun exporting.
However, despite these obstacles, she is always safe in the knowledge that, internationally, there is a “huge – forgive the pun – appetite for our products”.