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Farmers should look to China for growth

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 22, 2012

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London Editor

Westcountry farmers and producers have "monster opportunities" to sell food and drink to China, the Environment Secretary has told the Western Morning News on his return from a trade mission to the world's most populous country.

Tory minister Owen Paterson believes the increasingly diverse appetite of the Chinese middle-class makes for a huge export opportunity for the region, notably beef and dairy farmers that are at the heart of the Devon and Cornwall economy.

For example, he said British coffee chain Costa projects a surge in the number of its outlets in China from 250 to 2,500, and the firm is reversing the pattern of 19th century "clipper" ships sailing east to bring tea back to Britain.

"They (Costa) bring all their coffee in but they don't bring their milk in," he said. "There's a massive opportunity."

The Secretary of State added livestock farmers also have the chance of selling cuts of meat that are worth little or nothing in the UK – the "fifth quarter" animal parts such as heart, glands and tail.

He said: "We saw chicken's feet being imported from Brazil in Tesco. With beef, it wouldn't just be the top quality of cuts that would be of interest."

Mr Paterson has just returned from Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. When there, some 40 British businesses sold their wares to 30,000 importers at the giant Food and Hotel China exhibition in Shanghai, including specialist UK tea producers.

Britain's food and drink exports to China are modest given its 1.34 billion population. But trade is growing.

UK food exports to China – excluding £66.1 million of whiskey exports, long popular in China – increased by 78 per cent to £105 million between 2010 and 2011.

And demand is expected to leap. Some £36 billion of China food imports are poised to jump to £39 billion by 2015.

Speaking to the WMN in his Whitehall office, Mr Paterson said: "The opportunities are absolutely monster. We were told by one of the cheese producers they didn't actually have a word for cheese until quite recently."

The minister said food scares in China have increased demand for produce meeting high standards – an advantage to Britain. But he warns of Australia, among others, stealing a march on dairy exports: "We're starting from a low base."

Among his ideas to improve trade links is to focus on just three ports of entry to "get a really good working relationship" with officials to overcome not infrequent regulatory hurdles. He added: "If you can get a product in you've got a huge number of increasingly wealthy, demanding customers."

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