Thai Food Exports & Restaurants
Boosting the Kingdom's Reputation Overseas
It's a little known fact that Thailand is one of the world's top five exporters of raw food, yet the Kingdom can't seem to shake its reputation for not being up to international standards. While rice, sugar and other large shipments of commodity foodstuffs are routinely checked by the government's food quality agency, resources aren't available to audit smaller shipments of herbs, spices, canned produce and sometimes, seafood. For the most part, food shipped from Thailand is relatively good quality, as buyers seem to keep coming back for more. The Kingdom ships about a trillion baht in frozen seafood, canned fish and canned fruit alone. But everybody knows how a few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel, especially in terms of image.
Meanwhile, more and more Thai restaurants have been opening up around the world. Current estimates claim there are about 5,000 Thai food restaurants operating abroad including 2389 in the U.S., 718 in Australia, 418 in England, 315 in Germany and 198 in New Zealand. The Thai government often ponders aloud how this trend will lead to more buyers for the Kingdom's food products. And there has been much talk lately of slapping a Thai flag label on all food exports in hopes that Thai food restaurants overseas will be more inclined to buy. But the government would do better to try and improve Thailand's food reputation first.
While there are thousands of Thai restaurants around the world, a Thai flag label is not likely to be a strong motivator considering there is no guarentee that all of these restaurants are actually owned and operated by Thai citizens. And there's currently little incentive for them to buy foodstuffs from Thailand at all when they could possibly get it cheaper from other countries closer to their operations. And if they opt not use authentic indregdients in their Thai dishes, nobody would be the wiser considering that most of their clientele has probably never even traveled to Thailand.
While the government should get stricter about food export quality, it should simultaneously ensure that Thai restaurants overseas are actually "Thai." Are they using traditional Thai ingredients such as green curry paste, fish sauce, sweet basil (ga-prow), Kaffire lime (ma-grut) and Siamese ginger (Khaa) in their dishes? Are these products actually grown on Thai soil in their proper climate? Thai cuisine has a reputation for using a variety of healthy herbs and spices such as these on vegetables, rice and soup, but there are currently no standards overseas to ensure they are actually being used.
If the government wants to get label happy, how about promoting a "seal of approval" for those overseas Thai restaraunts that actually are authentic? Many years ago, Shell Co.'s Thai Public Relations Executive M.R. Thanadsri Swaddiwasd, well-known for his discriminating pallete, embarked on a food tasting mission here in the Kingdom. For every restaurant that met his approval, he awarded the "Shell Shuan Shim" seal. Shell Co. promoted the project, and the public was aware of the seal's significance. It boosted the reputation and increased business for quality restaurants and gave customers a way to weed out the good from the bad.
A similar program to test restaurants overseas would cost the government more than patriotic labeling of course, but could result in better long term business for Thai food exporters, and a better reputation for Thai food in general. Instead of getting prematurely excited over the growing number of Thai restaurants overseas, the government must first consider who actually benefits from its promotions.