“China is a market which cannot be easily ignored," said director for Food and Drink at the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) Antoaneta Becker, "particularly for the food and drink industry."
“We’ve seen rising demand for imported food and drink and particularly, over the last two years, Chinese buyers have been asking us for protein-rich products. The emphasis is on imported, branded seafood products and high protein dairy but also for some of the alternative proteins [such as] insect snacks and soy-based drinks."
For Malachy Mitchell, managing director at Farrelly & Mitchell Business Consultants, the Middle East and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region in particular is appealing thanks to its growing and increasingly affluent population of 55 million consumers.
“It’s also growing in terms of per capita consumption of meat and dairy.”
Both Becker and Mitchell agree that European manufacturers have a competitive advantage over other exporting countries– but for different reasons. While Chinese consumers appreciate Europe’s traditional quality, for Middle Eastern countries, it is synonymous with innovative food tech.
"Europe’s competitiveness […] is around innovation and the Middle East badly needs systemisation, innovation and know-how," said Mitchell. "There is no shortage of capital there and so in that context, there are great opportunities for companies in Europe to joint venture with local companies across the GCC and develop sustainable business models.”
Of course, there are barriers to doing business in both regions and while gaining entry may seem daunting at first, there are ways to get a foot in the door.
"[The Middle East] is not for the faint-hearted in the sense that it’s not ‘one visit and then go home because the strategy is complete’. It’s a market that needs a lot of face time, the culture is very much face to face and very family-oriented so decision-making can be quite protracted," said Mitchell.
“You need to make the commitment – but the rewards are there if you do.”
In China, meanwhile, all imported products must comply with the Guobiao (GB) standards, which are currently 5,000 in number and continually being revised and updated.
“It’s like a long-term race to keep up with the latest, revised standards," said Becker. "Keeping track of the ever-evolving regulation and food safety legislation, which emerged after the melamine scandal in 2008, is probably the one big [issue],” adding that organisations like the CBBC could help companies navigate and overcome these barriers.