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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.