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Food suppliers warned: innovate or fail

Food handlers in the UAE will have to ensure healthier and more locally-grown products to keep up with evolving food trends, says expert.

ABU DHABI // Food suppliers will need to offer more locally grown and healthier products to survive against international companies, a consumer goods expert has warned.

Xavier Terlet, the president of the food database XTC World Innovation Europe, said he was convinced Middle East residents would eventually understand the need to improve their diets.

Mr Terlet said that when they do "food handlers will have to find new ways to meet these consumer demands".

He added: "The real challenge for food handlers in the Middle East is innovation because today we have consumers that want to discover new products."

Supermarket shelves will be totally different in five years, said Fadi Saad, the group exhibition director at Turret Media.

"Consumption habits will change," said Mr Saad, whose company is one of the organising partners for the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire.

And local suppliers will have to meet these demands with new products or large multinational companies, such as Nestle, are likely to dominate the regional market.

"Local food always has an added value compared to large multinationals," said Mr Terlet.

The UAE imports about 85 per cent of its food, much of it from the West. Exports of US food to the GCC reached Dh3.1 billion in 2009, of which more than half went to the UAE.

This will make a more local approach difficult, Mr Terlet said.

Although the country's Dh12.8bn food market is mainly governed by large retail chains and multinational companies, "there is definitely a place in the market for a more local offer", he said.

"The food industry in the Middle East has a very strong potential to innovate."

Food trends are evolving globally. In the US and Europe in particular, consumers are paying ever more attention to the wider impact of what they eat.

"This means the product is eco-friendly and the brand does not exploit children or commit any humanitarian offences," he said.

For Middle East consumers, though, pleasure from eating still outweighs health.

"We notice more western products and more sugary food, which is not very healthy," said Mr Terlet.

In 2008, the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi said that about 70 per cent of residents over the age of 18 were overweight or obese. Among schoolchildren, 30 per cent were obese.

"There are many nutritional imbalances today and there is a strong need for products that are more nutritionally balanced," said Mr Terlet.

He gave the example of healthier yoghurts and drinks that reduce cholesterol levels for adults.

"With the change in food in the last few years we should be expecting healthier products soon," said Mr Terlet.

He said women in the Middle East played a significant role in the shift of food trends. "With increasing hobbies and work instead of household tasks, we should expect more practical, convenient and sophisticated products that save time."

cmalek@thenational.ae

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