James Withers: Scotland can cater to growing appetite for quality food

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Scotland is a global player in quality food and China has a growing appetite for it, writes James Withers

If you asked people around the world to tell you about Scotland, most would probably start with whisky and then some might mention golf.

But our reputation for the finest food is now growing around the globe. For anyone who was at the European Seafood Exhibition in Brussels ten days ago, as I was, it would be impossible to miss Scotland’s presence. We’re a global player now.

We’re trying to build the reputation of Scotland as a land of food and drink, and are now having unprecedented success. We’re exporting sushi to Japan, cheese to France, tea to China and sausages to the Germans.

But of all our £1.1 billion worth of food exports leaving Scotland next year, the star player is seafood. A total of 56 per cent of all our food exports last year were in seafood – salmon, shellfish, whitefish, herring and mackerel, worth £650 million.

Salmon exports to China trebled in the first ten months of last year from £9m to £24m. The really exciting part of this emerging Scottish success story, though, is that we are still at the tip of the iceberg.

China is one example of a market which is exploding just now and developing a taste of what Scotland has to offer. They want high-quality ingredients and they want a story behind the food as well. It’s a perfect fit for what we have to offer.

The estimate is that by 2020 a total of 44 per cent of all luxury goods will be bought by the Chinese. They have 133 cities with a population of a million or more and what we are seeing in China and Asia is the biggest shift in consumer spending in history. They are looking for premium products and Asian customers have cash to spend.

We have inward missions from Chinese buyers. They go to distilleries and the first question usually is: “What is the most expensive bottle we can buy?”

They are hugely brand conscious and their food and drink choices are made to reflect their status and wealth.

What we want to do is sprinkle a little of the magic which surrounds the whisky sector across the rest of the food and drink industry. We need to tell our national story, we need to create a national food and drink identity for Scotland in the new emerging markets.

What we have to do in Asia is set out what we stand for in terms of food and drink. It’s about the natural larder, pristine waters and clear seas. It’s about an industry built on tradition, but which is embracing innovation. We need to be out in that market too. For the first time, as of two weeks ago, we have a dedicated food and drink person working out of the Shanghai office of Scottish Development International, helping to create the demand to be met by producers here.

That is just the start of things to come. We need to improve the resource on the ground, as the Irish and New Zealanders have done. We are looking at more people and more spending power, with government now working hand in hand with industry to move us to a new level.

All the main food and drink organisations in this country have come together through Scotland Food & Drink. We have written a ten-year plan to take us through to 2017 with a target to grow the value of Scotland’s food and drink industry from £10bn to £12.5bn, a 25 per cent growth in a decade. As it happens, all the signs are that we’ll hit that target six years early. So we’re now resetting our clock, establishing new targets.

Our food and drink industry is Scotland’s biggest growth story right now. Amidst a sea of economic doom and gloom, this industry of talented people and world-class produce is standing out. And we aim to keep it that way.

• James Withers is chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink

CHINA IN OUR HANDS

SCOTLAND has taken advantage of a diplomatic row involving Norway to cash in on Chinese demand for salmon.

Until October 2010, the Scandinavian country supplied 90 per cent of China’s salmon stock, but the Norway-based Nobel Committee then awarded its peace prize to Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence.

In retaliation, Beijing scrapped all political ties with Norway and instead cast its net for salmon in Scottish waters. It took just six months for China to become the largest exporter of Scottish salmon after it signed a deal with the SNP government in January 2011.