Australia looks to Asian 'dining boom' as food exports surge

Polystyrene boxes filled with live rock lobsters sit on a hydraulic lift to be loaded into a Cathay Pacific Airways aircraft bound for Hong Kong at Perth International Airport.
Polystyrene boxes filled with live rock lobsters sit on a hydraulic lift to be loaded into a Cathay Pacific Airways aircraft bound for Hong Kong at Perth International Airport.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - A falling currency and a dry spell in the United States have helped Australian food exports jump by a quarter to an annual A$26 billion (S$26.13 billion), an outcome likely to please policymakers eager to find signs of life in non-mining sectors.

Australia has entered its 25th year of uninterrupted growth, but its A$1.6 trillion economy has slowed as it shifts from exporting natural resources to other areas such as construction, manufacturing and tourism.

Now the talk is of a "dining boom" for Australian farmers as Asian consumers move up the food chain to more expensive meat and dairy products.

"The Chinese are transitioning from a carbohydrate-based diet to a protein-based one; at present that protein is mainly coming from pigs and chickens, but beef will become increasingly important," agribusiness bankers at National Australia Bank said in a note. "Dairy also looks set to be a winner, especially if we can replicate the kind of success New Zealand dairy has had in China."

Meat exports alone jumped 43 per cent to A$14 billion in the year to June, helped by US production falling because of drought, the Australian Food and Grocery Council said in a report.

The export surge allowed the Australian Agricultural Company , the nation's biggest listed beef producer, to flag a return to profit. The company will post half-year results this month.

The Reserve Bank of Australia kept interest rates steady earlier this month after cutting them to an all-time low of 2.0 per cent in May, reducing the foreign exchange value of the Australian dollar.

The steep 15 per cent fall in the Australian dollar over the past 12 months has made local producers much more competitive in the global food market.

Recent free trade agreements signed with China, Japan and South Korea also promise to improve access to Asian markets and reduce tariffs on Australian foods.

Australian wine too has been in demand with annual exports up 18 per cent, according to the Australian Food and Grocery Council report.

Australia's Treasury Wine Estates, the world's biggest standalone wine maker, forecasts the Asian market will be the largest single contributor to its profits by June 2017.

"The recent depreciation of the Australian dollar, coupled with improved routes to market and strong consumer demand for our wine brands, have all been contributing factors," said a company spokesman.

In the soft sector, Bundaberg Brewed Drinks International's export sales of ginger beer have risen nearly 20 per cent in the past two years, now accounting for a third of its business.

With an annual turnover of A$100 million and 200 employees, the family-owned bottler hopes exports will eventually outpace domestic sales. Chief Executive John McLean said the adoption of invoicing in export clients' home currencies had underpinned its growth.

McLean noted the Aussie dollar's fall of between 6 and 18 per cent against major currencies had added to the company's profitability - just as the Reserve Bank intended.