British Food Is Taking Over the World

Countries like Italy and France, which are known for making their own great cheese and wine, are buying up such products from Britain in huge quantities. What gives?

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Jan 15 2015, 9:45pm

Globalization is a strange beast. According to figures from Britain's Institute of Export (IOE), UK exports boomed last year. It comes as no surprise that Britain, a longtime proponent of free trade—after all, the early British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo pretty much shaped our modern idea of this type of economy—is finding success exporting goods. What does come as a surprise is the type of foods Britain is spreading with such success, and the unlikely countries that are buying those foods.

You see, according to the IOE, the UK is exporting millions of dollars' worth of foods to countries that are known for producing those foods domestically: tea to China, cheese to France, and chocolate to Switzerland and Belgium, most notably. The tide of opinion on British foods—which have long suffered from an image problem—is shifting, and the cuisine is now generally understood to be way more nuanced than traditional dishes like shepherd's pie and fish and chips indicate. But it's still notable that Brit-produced items are becoming so desirable in countries known for their expertise in—and long histories of—making those foods themselves.

Numbers don't lie, and the figures quoted by the IOE are impressive. In 2014, Britain's export of about 44,000 pounds of cheese to fromage-obsessed France valued about $166 million USD. The UK also sold France about $73 million worth of wine, even though France's own bottles are among the most desirable in the world. Italy, whose Barolos and Nebbiolos grace many a wine-lover's table, imported more than $3 million worth of British wine. Similarly, though milky, low-cocoa English chocolate definitely has its fan base, true chocoholics are much more inclined to reach for the internationally renowned sweet stuff produced in Switzerland and Belgium, which purchased $15 million and $26 million worth of UK chocolate, respectively, last year.

Speaking of Belgium, its brews are sought after the world over, with many a beer hall devoted almost exclusively to Belgian suds. But apparently the Flemish and Walloons alike crave their neighbor's ales, because they imported nearly $142 million worth of them in 2014, up from just $4.6 million in 2010. And British food exports travel much farther than simple border- or channel-hopping: between January 2013 and September 2014, the UK exported about $503,000 worth of tea to China—the originator of the drink—an increase of 30 percent. And Pakistan, a nation known for its spicy cuisine, now buys about $61,000 worth of chiles from notoriously heat-averse Britain. Overall, in 2014, the UK's food exports over 150 countries valued about $29 billion.

Understandably, those who work in the field of British exports are pretty excited about last year's numbers. Lesley Batchelor is the director general of the IOE. She told MUNCHIES in an email that British food is better than ever and that it makes sense that other countries want a taste of it.

"I don't really find this surprising," she said. "Eating in the UK is great, and very cosmopolitan: you name it, we have it. These export figures are merely reflecting the fact that we have definitely moved on!"

She said that she believes that the British export market will continue to grow in coming years. "We do see this trend continuing," she said. "You will be seeing a lot more British products in your stores."

But other British food experts are notably more skeptical about the export sector's breathless praise of its own achievements. Elaine Lemm is the British and Irish food writer for about.com. While she agrees that English food's reputation is deservedly on the ascent, she believes that the rise in British exports has a more straightforward explanation: Politics.

"Articles similar to this have appeared in other newspapers," she said of a Daily Mail piece that quoted the IOE's data. "I think they're simply for good government PR in an election year."

Beyond politics, Lemm said that such huge export numbers reflect a targeted marketing push by government-supported food and drink firms to aggressively campaign for British products, and the Daily Mail article says as much: "Ministers boast they have helped a record 2,500 food and drink firms to sell their produce abroad in the last year," it reports.

"Successive governments have pushed our export trade," Lemm agreed. "It is big business and a vital part of the economy overall. It is the salesmanship."

Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University London and a sometime contributor to The Guardian, underscored the economically-driven nature of this month's "news" even more strongly.

"This is old as capitalism," he said. "What is new is the scale and enormity of it."

Ever since 1994's General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT) knocked down tariffs and trade restrictions between 123 nations, Lang said, Britain has pushed its exports harder and harder each year. When it comes to trade in its food products, though, Lang is less than enthused.

"The second thing about this is the absurdity of it," he said. "Generally, it's extremely disruptive. It spreads a Western diet, along with Western ailments such as heart disease, to nations that have no need for it. It also distorts the availability of locally produced food in those countries, and leads to maldistribution of the food system."

Plus, Lang said, all that food flying all those miles is a nightmare when it comes to a carbon footprint.

"The environmental costs of this are getting very big indeed," he said.

France produces excellent cheeses, and China grows top-tier teas. But Lang said the reason such countries would be interested in buying these goods elsewhere is simple.

"The answer is status," he said. "Food is culture, food is aspiration. It's not different than the fashion of Japanese clothes in Britain; it's style, it's consumerism," he said.

Overall, Lang believes that Britain's rampant export economy—which he called a "neoliberal dream"—does much more harm than good.

"We should be sharing ideas, not goods," he said.

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