Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the agri-food market meant it was at the “top of the agenda” for UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, according to AHDB chief executive Jane King.
Speaking after her return from a trade visit to China with Dr Fox and the UK prime minister, Theresa may, Ms King said she was concerned about the ability of the industry to thrive in the shifting landscape.
“The Department of International Trade wants to grow British trade and can see countries, such as China, are very interested in British products,” she said.
And she was hoping Dr Fox would help AHDB, a non-governmental group funded by a statutory levy on farmers and other parts of the food chain, to drive the message of the importance of productivity and innovation.
“We know the sector is going to be challenged as we know we are going to see a decline in farm support,” Ms King said.
‘Door opens wider and wider’
Chinese consumers were switching to more Westernised diets as they became more affluent, with a keen interest in the British brand.
The trip, which aimed to boost Sino-British relations, saw eight people from the food and drink sector sitting alongside other key figures in UK business, such as carmaker Jaguar Land Rover and banking giant HSBC.
The prime minister announced last week UK beef would be back on the menu for China within the next six months after Beijing agreed to lift an import ban introduced in 1996, over BSE fears.
And Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said UK produce, including regional cheeses, would be allowed in to give consumers access to higher-quality agricultural products.
Mr Li added that Sino-UK relations would not change because of Brexit, saying China’s door would be open to Britain “wider and wider”.
‘Could be transformational’
Ms King felt she had been able to push the importance of agriculture to Theresa May.
“The point I made to the prime minister was if we look at the kind of trade deals done, British beef does not add up to the greatest benefit to the UK,” she said.
“But it could be transformational for the beef industry.”
‘Particularly beholden to the EU’
AHDB’s international market development director, Dr Phil Hadley, said markets such as China were important in the context of Brexit and estimated the beef trade could be worth £250m after the first five years.
He said: “As we move to become a free trading nation, it is absolutely critical we have as many markets as possible.
“For a lot of those products we are particularly beholden to the European Union market.”
While Europe would continue to be an important market, it was crucial to mitigate any impact Brexit may have.
Dr Hadley added it was important to find the best market for every part of the carcass to maximise returns, with China opening opportunities to sell so-called “fifth quarter” cuts popular in that country but not the UK.
There could also be opportunities for malting barley exports, as well as growing exports of wheat.
The pork industry had already seen the benefits of increased market access as UK exports grew 6% last year to 46,000 tonnes, despite Chinese import demand dropping due strengthened Chinese domestic production.
‘Switched on to dairy’
Dairy was also a major area of interest for the Chinese market, with many consumers interested in goat and sheep milk.
“They are getting more switched on to dairy. It is growing,” said Dr Hadley.
“They are drinking dairy in their coffee and are increasingly interested in cheeses.
And Dr Hadley said the deal showed there needed to be an emphasis on food safety and quality, with the next step being Chinese inspectors to review the UK’s controls.
“Chinese consumers do rate safety highly as they have had a number of food scares,” he said.
“They often rate imported products more highly and pay a premium for imported UK and European produce.”