Herding UK firms into new pastures: Exports: the 11-year-old Food from Britain organisation has restructured itself in a concerted effort to help British food companies sell their products abroad

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The Independent Online
MUCH is made - usually by farmers - of Britain's strides towards self-sufficiency in food. But less well realised is the UK industry's lack of progress overseas.

While the food and drink companies have 85 per cent of the home market, they have just 1 per cent of the European market and a fraction of that in the world as a whole. As a result, says Geoffrey John, chairman of Food from Britain, there is 'great potential'.

That the performance has not been better must in part be down to past failings by Food from Britain, which was set up 11 years ago. However, the organisation, backed by the Government and the industry, was originally a wide-ranging affair that had responsibility for agricultural development grants and quality certification as well as food exports.

Now, following a review instigated by the Ministry of Agriculture and unveiled earlier this month, it is more streamlined. Mr John, who has worked for Dalgety and Associated British Foods and is a former chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, was appointed last September. Under him, Food from Britain is concentrating on just two areas - exports and developing specialty foods within the UK.

The organisation, which has an income of pounds 9m (made up of pounds 5.3m from the Government and pounds 3.7m from the industry), has six overseas offices that have just been privatised and are now run by people with commercial experience rather than by bureaucrats, Mr John says.

It has produced substantial cost savings through reducing its staff from about 50 to 20 and by shedding other activities. But, in a move that he sees as 'very important' in demonstrating Government support, the savings have been retained within the organisation.

Mr John believes that all that needs to be done is to persuade companies to see the opportunities. 'As they find the home market is static, they really are beginning to realise the big potential overseas,' he says.

However, he acknowledges there is still work to be done in persuading companies to make exports a key part of their activity. 'We're trying to build sustainable exports.'

He points out that British companies have a number of factors in their favour. They are efficient, have a strong health and safety record and - by supplying the likes of Marks & Spencer and J Sainsbury - are used to meeting high standards.

Food from Britain talks to about 1,200 UK companies about exporting opportunities and actively deals with about 250 of them.

These pay a membership fee that depends on turnover in exchange for assistance with making inroads in overseas markets. They cover a variety of products and companies ranging from well-known names such as as Cadbury Schweppes, Dalgety and Hillsdown to much smaller organisations.

Among these is Farne Salmon and Trout, a company based in Duns, Scotland that - with the help of Food from Britain - is supplying leading supermarkets in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria.

The company, established 12 years ago, says it is 'highly delighted' with the efforts made on its behalf by the organisation.

'For companies like us to put our own organisations in place on a speculative basis would be too expensive. But in return for a membership fee they are marketing for us in those countries,' a spokesman says.

'They can introduce us relatively simply to the kind of people to whom we should be talking.'

(Photograph omitted)