Over 80 food brands came together in Yangon last Sunday to show off their wares at the 5th Myanmar Food & Drink Expo. Unlike the world’s fanciest food expos, which feature demonstrations by master chefs, lectures by gastronomists, and freshly made delicacies for throngs of salivating foodies, the Myanmar version was designed for a food scene in which the goal is not to be tasty but to be harmless.
“Tastes don’t change much in Myanmar,” explained Tay Zar Hlaing, the expo’s organizer. “Since many people have low incomes, if the price of two items is the same, they’ll choose the one in the prettier packaging or the one that’s larger. They won’t necessarily pay attention to where it’s from. If it’s chocolate, they don’t choose between dark and light – that’s not something most people would consider.”
Before the Myanmar Food Processors & Exporters Association was founded in 2006, brands hardly networked and rarely improved. The outlook has brightened since 2009, when the association began putting on semi-annual expos to serve as forums for tea, oil, whiskey, and instant noodle companies to engage in friendly competition and learn from each other about packaging, safety, labelling, and quality control.
Practices such as using formaldehyde as a preservative, handling food with bare hands, and non-airtight packaging, though they persist in Myanmar, are finally meeting strong opposition.
Throughout this year’s expo, prizes were awarded to brands with the prettiest or most sanitary packaging. Some companies decorated their booths with all of the safety and quality certifications they’ve received. Sales of brand-new processing and packaging machinery were announced to the expo’s attendees. These rituals were designed to encourage the community of Myanmar food producers to improve collectively.
“There’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration,” Tay Zar Hlaing told Coconuts. “When someone tries something new, they tell the whole association: ‘Hey, I’m trying this new thing, if you have any advice or know any consultancy firms that might be helpful in this, let me know.’ And when they go abroad, especially to Bangkok, they go as an association rather than as individual companies representing themselves.”
The main thrust of this collaboration among food producers is to supplant imports and start exporting, hopefully to the benefit of everyone along the Myanmar supply chain.
Tay Zar Hlaing said: “There’s a general desire to improve, even though we are lacking in capacity. Farmers are demanding more money, so we need better products.”
One of the expo’s shining examples of a modern Myanmar food producer is Ye Myint Maung,the association’s secretary general, who also owns the supermarket chain ProMart and the food processing company Myanmar Belle. He imports products from South Korea and Japan to sell in his stores, and he also produces dehydrated, frozen, and powdered vegetables, all of which are exported to Japan.
“As a company owner, I’m here to set an example as someone who is importing and exporting at the same time,” he told Coconuts on the sidelines of the expo. “Exporting to Japan is a test of the quality of a product. If you can export to Japan, you can export to almost anywhere in the world. Since that is difficult, it’s what we’re focusing on first.”
Ye Myint Maung takes pride in his dehydrated vegetables, which mostly end up in Japanese retirement homes. They have a shelf life of two years and are also marketed as garnishes for instant noodles and as disaster relief supplies. But beyond the simple pride of having his products sold abroad, he boasts of running a company that maximizes the benefit to everyone down the supply chain, especially farmers.
“I employ 5,000 contract farmers in Shan State and in Naypyidaw. Since I sell dehydrated and frozen vegetables, very little goes to waste, so I have few losses, and I can pay the farmers more,” he said.
Eventually, Ye Myint Maung wants to start selling dehydrated and frozen vegetables in Myanmar, but he anticipates challenges as Myanmar people are accustomed to eating fresh vegetables, even though they are not well-regulated and often contain harmful pesticides or preservatives. Changing local tastes could take years.
So while the rest of the world promotes the benefits of fresh, local foods, Ye Myint Maung, Tay Zar Hlaing, and other Myanmar producers are doing the life-saving work of winning people over to food that is processed, packaged, and possibly dehydrated.