China's first traceable wine

A big step for an industry plagued with scandals.

I have been fortunate enough to be involved with the beverage industry across Asia over the past decade. In particular, China’s evolution into a global economic powerhouse has been nothing less than spectacular. Given the sheer geographic and population spread, China is too big to be considered as one country. For example, Guangdong province alone has a population of over 100m which itself is bigger than the Philippines (the 12th most populated in the world), therefore businesses should treat each province within China as a separate country.

Over the past few years, China’s food & beverage industry has been plagued by a number of scandals. The most famous of which has been the melamine contamination post Beijing Olympics in late 2008. The Associated Press back then reported that over 50,000 babies and children were affected with nearly a thousand being hospitalized as well as several deaths. There was a public and media outcry which resulted in several high profile arrests in the dairy industry as well as open apologies from the leading dairy companies such as Mengniu and Yili. Sales of dairy products declined sharply in the months following the scandal, but have since recovered as the industry continues to prosper and grow.

Despite the promise by the government to tackle and improve food safety in China, further scandals broke out in 2011 as Xinhua News Agency reported unscrupulous businesses collected used cooking oil from sewers and restaurants to process and repackaged as new cooking oil for sale. This type of dishonest practice continues to be the norm as businesses sidelines consumers’ health and safety for a quick profit.

Frustrated by the slow progress taken by the authorities, the industry has taken the matter into their own hands. Star Farm, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the retailer Metro Group, was established in 2007. The company is committed to food safety and quality through a traceability system along the whole value chain. As of 2010, it has developed over 2,000 products with local producers resulting in RMB 700m (£70m) in retail sales in 2010.

One of the recent developments with Star Farm has been the collaboration with Beijing Summit Wines. The result is a brand called 1421, which is China’s first traceable wine. The cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay grapes are cultivated and grown in Xinjiang province by which Star Farm has maintained full records of the soil, fertilizers used as well as processing, bottling and distribution. Consumers can scan the barcode at the back of the bottle with their mobile phones as it directs them to Star Farm’s website, by which they will be able to access all relevant information about the ingredients and processes along the value chain for the brand.

The initiatives taken by the industry to provide food safety assurance to consumers represents a step in the right direction, but there is still a very long road ahead as consumers are becoming more knowledgeable, with health and safety becoming a key priority for their families. The central government needs to maintain a fine balance between consumers and businesses in order to continue its economic miracle.

Wine, China, Getty images

Phil Chan is Asia director for Canadean, the consumer market experts.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.