Australian food producers see Dubai and its flagship Gulfood exhibition as a valuable gateway to the important strategic markets of the UAE and the Gulf, with some companies looking beyond to Africa and Europe, all of which complements the major Australian export markets in China and other Far Eastern countries.
The Australian state of Victoria leads the way in the country’s food business since it produces 24 percent of Australia’s food exports from only 3 percent of the vast country’s total landmass.
Over the years a steady marketing campaign has worked to position Australian as being of very high quality and totally natural. In the Victoria’s capital Melbourne the gourmet food scene sets a very high local standard which tests the food before its gets exported under the slogan “Clean. Green. Australian.”
This focus on quality has allowed the Australian producers to distinguish themselves in the tough Gulf markets where they are fighting producers from Europe that also have high standards but much less further to travel to get their fresh foods onto the Gulf supermarket shelves.
One example of a successful operator in the Gulf is Melbourne-based Bulla Dairy Foods, which is one of Australia’s major cream and dairy companies. A family business that has built a dominant positon in Australia over the years and then started exporting to China and other Asian destinations, Bulla has been in the UAE for some time but wants to expand its business in the Middle East.
“The Gulf is an emerging strategic area for us. We have not done a lot of business there in the past but we have just signed with a new distributer in the UAE, Truebell Marketing. Our historic business has been with the retail chain Spinneys, and now we are expanding that business model to include others while maintaining our strong relationship with Spinneys, while Truebell will market our products across the region, starting with Qatar and Oman,” Tony Gunnis, International Business Manager at Bulla Dairy Foods told Gulf News in Melbourne.
Bulla is typical of many Australian food companies, with its strategy of starting its Gulf business through a good relationship with the up-market grocery chain Spinneys, and Spinneys currently stocks just over 600 food products from Victoria alone. Larger companies or those that have been in the region for longer then look for ways to expand their business across a wider segmentation of the UAE, and into other GCC states, before looking further afield.
This is a new market and new area to do business, so we need to familiarise ourselves with the environment and build the relationships."
- Jaala Pulford, Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture
Meat provides the largest proportion of Dh 859 million (A$316 million) Victorian food exports to the UAE with 38 percent by value (Dh 329 million, A$ 121 million) of which 75 percent is lamb and mutton; the next category is horticulture with 22 percent of which the vast majority is fresh and dried fruit; followed by cereal prepared foods with 21 percent, and then dairy with 7 percent.
The meat business has dominated Victorian food exports to the Gulf for years. In the 1970s and 1980s it was managed by transporting live beasts to the Gulf in huge livestock ships, and the animals which were then slaughtered in the region. But the Victorian Government has worked hard to get the Gulf Islamic authorities to accept Australian halal slaughtering and they are proud of today’s good relationship between the two countries’ Islamic establishments. This has meant that the ships now carry carcasses and the meat arrives in the Gulf in better condition, helping the industry achieves its slogan of delivering quality from “paddock to plate” even over 12,000 kms distance from Melbourne to Dubai.
One Victorian meat exporter to the Gulf is the Midfield Group, founded in the 1970s by Colin McKenna in south west Victoria. It has expanded from a small start to become a company with multiple divisions which is a major player in the domestic and export market, with beef, lamb, veal, mutton and their by-products traversing Australia and the globe. The company states that “fundamentals have never changed. The Midfield Group has complete control over its products from paddock to plate”.
“The Gulf is important to us as it takes more than 50 percent of the lamb that we sell in the Middle East, most of which goes through the UAE before going onto Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Africa,” said Dean McKenna of the Midfield Group, who was at Gulfood in Dubai, just after the company had also mounted a major stand at Japan’s Super Market Tradeshow in Tokyo. “The USA is our largest export market,” said McKenna, “followed by Japan and South Korea, and then the Middle East which is our fourth territory”.
Midfield’s experience is typical of the Victorian meat industry as a whole. As Peter Hunter, Market Engagement Specialist with Trade Victoria, puts it: “The US, China and Japan are the most valuable markets for Victorian meat. China has been a strong growth market for beef in recent years but competition is now intensifying from lower cost South American producers like Brazil. The US market has experienced strong demand for lamb, with Australian exports up 5 percent in 2015-16 and have almost tripled for the last five years”.
The Victorian government’s Food Performance Report has the US as the top market for Victorian meat at Dh 2 billion (A$ 731 million) in 2016, more than double the A$ 337 million going to China which is the second market, followed by Japan, Indonesia and South Korea till the UAE comes in as Victoria’s fifth biggest market for meat with Dh 329 million (A$ 121 million), and Qatar Dh 228 (A$ 84 million and Saudi Arabia Dh 217 (A$ 80 million).
But between 2015 to 2016 there has been an 18 percent fall in meat exports to the US and a 25 percent fall in exports to China. This collapse of the established major markets has increased interest in Victoria’s other markets like the Gulf.
Iran is an emerging market that has attracted specific interest as political relations have improved, with its 78 million people of whom 40 percent are young, tech savvy and sophisticated. The Victorian government sees Iran as a commodity market at first, but expects a significant potential in the longer term for higher value food products.
The Australian government has re-opened a Trade Commission in Tehran which is working with state governments like Victoria to build trade in the face of strong competition from Europe, North America and China.
“The Victorian Government is liaising closely with Austrade and is committed to the long term support of Victorian food and fibre companies interested in engaging with Iran. Iran is an exciting market which is expected to be one of the key export destinations in the MENA region for years to come,” said Brian Kearns of Trade Victoria and Kassem Younes of the Victorian Trade and Investment Office in Dubai in the Food Performance Report.
This initiative is backed by Jaala Pulford, Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture, who told Gulf News in an interview in Melbourne that “We are looking at Iran. We have a lot of interest from investors in Iran and we are exploring opportunities. We are open to bringing people together who want to do business. Our exporter are interested in going in and we have an open mind about it.
“This is a new market and this new area to do business, so we need to familiarize ourselves with the environment and build the relationships. We want to explore the possibilities particularly around meat, grains and dairy. We are keen to explore, even if it is still early days”.
Victoria food and fibre exports to the UAE
By industry and product category
Figures: A$ million; '000 tonnes
Source: Victorian Food and Fibre Export Performance Report, 2015-16, Victoria State Government
Notes: Some lines from the orginal have been excluded as not having a major impact. Some totals appear slightly inaccurate due to rounding