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.