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Thailand evolves future food, boosts food industry

Source:FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal     Date:2022-11-02
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FOOD manufacturers in Thailand are reshaping the future through food. Keeping true to its stature as a global powerhouse for food and agricultural products, Thailand is drawing upon its strong farm and food industries and growing biotechnology capability to develop future food that will meet the growing global demand for healthier, more sustainable and more innovative foods that also cater to the increasing sophisticated tastes and preferences of consumers.


Already considered as an industry by the Thai government, the local future food sector is also seen as a way to address global food security and safety concerns besides cementing Thailand’s leading position in the global food market. With food and agriculture amongst the four key areas of Thailand’s Bio-Circular Green Economy model, a government policy that aims to provide guidelines for a more efficient use of natural resources with the least impact on the environment, the future food sector will remain a priority likely to benefit from government support, technology boost, and other industry initiatives, said Visit Limlurcha, honorary president of the Thai Food Processors Association (TFPA), during an online conference hosted by Ringier Events.

Fish Seafood Factory Industry _ Mark Agnor_Dreamstime - Copy.jpg

Thailand’s future foods are currently categorised into four groups -- functional foods, novel foods, medical foods and organic foods. (Photo of fish processing © Mark Agnor | Dreamstime.com) 

“The Thai food industry has been for decades now operating on the BCG model, which is based on the sufficiency economy philosophy of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. We used various terms for the basic principles in the past -- reduce, reuse, recycle, eco-friendly, etc. Now we try to fuse them all together in BCG, which is about complying with global food quality and safety standards, using technology to add value, managing food wastes more efficiently, shifting to clean energy and reducing consumption, and all these other global issues. With the BCG model, we’re also able to comply with the UN SDG targets,” Limlurcha added.


Thailand’s future foods are currently categorised into four groups -- functional foods, novel foods, medical foods and organic foods.


“Between 2014 and 2021, we exported future foods at 6 percent per annum. For Q1 of this year, growth is at 24 percent YoY. The domestic consumption value was about 20 billion baht with a growth rate of 20 percent,” said Limlurcha.


With demand for healthier food that is also good for the environment on the rise, Limlurcha has an optimistic outlook for the country’s future food categories. “The past two years have influenced how both consumers and manufacturers perceive food. Besides the preference for healthy eating, consumers are keeping up with global trends. They also want to know where the food they buy and feed their family is from. Meanwhile, Thai food manufacturers and operators are developing new menus and products to serve target groups, including to-go or processed foods produced under safety conditions and are traceable, environment-friendly and healthy. The positive response to our future food market and government funding for research and development will attract new and old market players to help us grow this line even further,” he added. 


Still the world’s kitchen 

Thailand’s food industry is looking poised to continue on its road to recovery and growth with production and exports gaining momentum since 2021. Manufacturers are more confident of an industry rebound after seeing it contract when the pandemic hit even as they continue to implement protocols in factories to control risks and prevent any outbreak.


The country’s food exports hit $34.6 billion in 2021, according to the National Food Institute. This represents an 11.8 percent jump from 2020 on the back of easing economic activity and rising global demand and prices. Shipments of the Thai Food Processors Association (TFPA) alone for the period January to November 2021 amounted to $32.7 million or 11.2 percent growth YoY. Imports for the same year reached US$12.3 million. Exports and imports for the first quarter of 2022 rose by 14 percent and 10 percent YoY, respectively, said Limlurcha.


Sustained positive market impetus even amidst challenges such as the inflation could push 2022 exports to surpass earlier projections. Strategic location and rich natural resources have contributed to making Thailand the kitchen of the world. Improving logistics infrastructure and adherence to global quality standards only complement the country’s food production, which currently exceeds domestic consumption, further strengthening Thailand’s capability to supply the world’s food requirements.


Thailand topped global exports of canned tuna, sweet corn, coconut milk, cassava, durian and pineapple products, according to the 2019 food trade data from the Ministry of Commerce. The country was the second leading exporter of rice and sugar and was amongst the world’s top five suppliers of chicken and shrimp during the same year. It ranked 9th in the global shipment of halal products and 11th in the export of ready-to-eat meals. 


Robust processed food industry

Such leading position in the global trade for products like canned tuna has cemented Thailand’s role in the processed food market. The country’s current base of food processors exceeds 10,000 food and beverage manufacturing factories. In fact, processed export food items such as processed seafood has displaced classic export products like rice and sugar, with the country leading global exports of the former item.


In Q1 2022, processed foods accounted for 33 percent of Thailand’s global food exports. Canned and processed seafood, wheat products and processed foods, and canned and processed fruits topped the category. The country’s biggest market remains the ASEAN, where 9 percent growth was noted during the period. For the ASEAN, Thailand’s top exports were beverages, wheat products and processed foods, and sauces and condiments.  


“Like other countries, Thailand was hit hard by the pandemic. We are slowly recovering now, but there are still many challenges such as the inflation. Food production costs rose 12 percent to 15 percent YoY caused by the 75 percent surge in fuel prices and 6 percent to 10 percent increase in raw material costs. Besides these, some supply chains remain constrained. Here in Thailand, we have land and we have farmers, but the fertiliser cost is prohibitive,” said TFPA’s Limlurcha.


He noted that whilst domestic selling prices likewise went up, the adjustment percentage is lower compared to that for production costs. “The government is trying to stabilise prices with price-control measures, but consumers’ purchasing power remains eroded. Many businesses try to absorb the rising costs, but how would they survive if they continue to do so? Despite all these, we remain fortunate in that we have enough food to supply our domestic consumers. We export 25 percent of production, and the rest goes to the local market,” Limlurcha added.


Ensuring processed food safety

Limlurcha notes how consumers’ increasingly busy lifestyle and preference for home cooking, especially during the pandemic, have spurred demand for processed and ready-to-eat foods.


“Besides being easily accessible, these food types provide convenience and reduce cooking preparation time, which is very helpful for busy families. Add to that the fact that these food types such as canned items can be stored and kept for longer, and this was particularly useful especially during the lockdowns as this augmented families’ food supply,” he shared.


Processing foods is also a means of preserving food and extending its shelf life. For a growing number of companies, it is also a way of reducing food loss and waste.


But what about nutritional benefits and product safety?


Thai food manufacturers adopt many ways to ensure processed foods retain their nutrients and are safe for the consumers, Limlurcha pointed out. Thermal, chilling and freezing, and dehydration are just some of these processes. For thermal processes, which aim to reduce, if not destroy, microbial and enzyme activity, pasteurisation and sterilisation are widely adopted.


“Companies use a number of heat processing techniques, amongst which there are blanching, canning, baking, roasting and frying. With thermal processes, manufacturers ensure their food meet certain quality standards,” he added.


For chilling and freezing processes, Thai food manufacturers keep to the ideal temperatures to slow down microbial growth and prevent food spoilage. To dehydrate food to inhibit the growth of microorganisms, the two methods commonly used by Thailand food manufacturers are spray drying and freeze drying. 


“The dairy industry is one of the largest processors of dehydrated foods. With freeze drying, meanwhile, the advantage is that the food maintains its structure and flavour. Almost any food can be freeze dried,” Limlurcha said.


The costs of these processes can be prohibitive, however. So, to offset the production expenses, they are mainly used for high-value products.


Limlurcha noted how each process presents its own set of challenges. “The manufacturer has to work these out to make sure the food meets the safety and quality parameters set. After all, the biggest challenge is really matching the demands of the consumer,” he said.


Taste, health and price remain key considerations for processed food manufacturers, Limlurcha added.


“Research say gender, age and even the atmosphere of the place affect the perception of taste.  With healthy foods, income is a factor as those with limited budget also have limited options. Eating healthy on a tight budget can be challenging, which is why it is important for food manufacturers to take such things in consideration when they develop products,” Limlurcha said. 


He highlighted the importance of staying abreast of market developments. “Food operators and manufacturers must observe market changes and keep adapting. What have been changing n consumer behaviours and needs? How do we match those with our products? Plant-based products, for example, are popular these days. We have been working on improving the taste of our products in this line to provide what our consumers want,” closed Limlurcha. 

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