Hannes Richter

Austrian Food is Going International

Hannes Richter

Growing Interest in the U.S.A. for Taste of Austrian Nature       
by Hans Kordik
Growing Interest in the U.S.A. for Taste of Austrian Nature
Emperor Franz-Josef was known to be a gourmet and, gourmand that he was, he relished good food in large quantities. In fact, the famous “Sacher Torte” (chocolate cake) and the “Sacher Würstl” (hot dog about 14 inches long) achieved popularity due to the culinary habits of this Habsburg monarch. Enjoying good food, especially that of high quality, characterizes the Austrian consumer. The last few decades have caused the expectations of Austrian consumers regarding their food to change. Since the definition of quality is considered to be subjective, it can vary from consumer to consumer. Quality could be defined, for instance, as freshness or healthiness of produce. Requests for high-quality and healthy foods are not enough for the Austrian consumer; however, today their demands go much further, for they want to know where the food comes from, how it was produced and whether it respects the environment and takes into consideration animal welfare.

Success by Promoting
Environmental Methods of Agriculture
Since 70% of Austria’s countryside is covered by mountains, the existing climatic and topographical conditions greatly limit the chances to diversify agriculture. Consequently, Austria’s agricultural policy has successfully promoted ‘environmentally friendly’ methods of farming. This decision was made many years before Austria joined the European Union. Instead of promoting methods designed to maximize productivity, and therefore yields per acre, the “socio-ecological market economy” introduced in the 1980s gave quality of food the highest priority. Under the leadership of former Minister of Agriculture Franz Fischler, who later became Commissioner for Agriculture in Brussels, Austria was successful during treaty negotiations in defending its agricultural orientation and in consolidating environmental methods of agriculture. After thirteen years as a member of the European Union, Austria is considered to be the leader among EU member states in terms of the highest share of participation (90% of Austrian farmers manage 94% of the farming land) using agri-environmental methods.  Farmers receive compensation for their services to the environment by foregoing yield-intensifying techniques  such as the use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic chemical plant protection products and growth promoters.

Austria is Organic Country No. 1

The most environmentally-friendly method of agriculture is organic farming and Austria is now considered to be the Number 1 “organic country” in Europe. As early as 1927, Austria registered the first organic farm in the world. The method of “organic-dynamic” production applied in Austria was based on the findings of the famous Austrian researcher and anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner. During the 1940s the “organic-biologic” method established by Hans Müller became even more popular. Only in the 1980s did a few farmers begin to apply organic methods. For the remainder of the decade organic farming expanded dramatically. Austria counted 880 organic farmers in 1988 and five years later this figure had jumped to over 13,000.

Besides having the first registered organic farm, Austria is also the first country in the world to establish national regulations for organic farming, ten years before the European Union. Today, Austria has the highest share of organic farms (14% of those within the European Union and 16% of the farming land  managed organically).

Having more than 20,000 organic farms is a success story achieved by Austrian agricultural policy. This success results not only from the introduction of financial assistance for organic farmers in 1991, but by the decision of Austria’s largest supermarket chains to promote organic produce beginning in 1995. Unlike many other European countries, organic produce in Austria is not meant to be a niche product. The objective is to make this most ecologically-compatible form of land use as widespread as possible,  and in so doing preserve the good quality of soil, water and air for future generations. Today, over 5% of the Austrian supermarket turnover is derived from fresh organic products.

Financial assistance to organic farmers is now offered by the European Union as well as national and local governments. This and the decision of super markets to include organic products in their product range contributed to the overwhelming success of organic farming. The ecological awareness of the Austrian consumer; their willingness to contribute to preserving a healthy environment and their acceptance of  higher prices for organic produce made this success possible.

Biotechnology Has No Place in Austria
Agricultural methods which respect the environment by reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides, by increasing the use of organic substances, by expanding crop rotation and promoting animal welfare are not compatible with the use of biotechnology. Austrian agriculture does not believe that genetic engineering can provide any benefits and rejects it. Following a referendum, nearly 70% of the Austrian consumers oppose using biotechnology in their food. Based on these expectations, all five parties of the Austrian parliament signed a declaration supporting this. Austria has been successful in keeping the production of genetically engineered food out of the country. To preserve sustainable methods of Austrian agriculture and food hormones or other growth-promoting substances as well as radiation are prohibited. Strict observance of the ‘Food-Act’ guarantees effective control, while quality and hygiene are carefully monitored during the complete production chain – from the stable to the table.

Exports of Austrian Food are Booming

“The taste of nature” is not only an expectation of the Austrian consumer, but the growth in exports shows that Austrian food and wine is widely treasured in other countries. Cereals are a good example of this – from being a net-importer Austria has become a net-exporter since the late 1980s. The Republic of Austria will soon be on a par with the European Union’s traditional agricultural exporting countries such as France, Denmark and the Netherlands. Although imports are also growing, Austria has managed to reduce its agricultural trade deficit of around 2.2 billion U.S. dollars in 1995 to a positive trade balance last year.

The United States, followed by Germany and Italy, represents the third biggest export market for Austrian food and wine. The most popular Austrian products in the United States are energy drinks like Red Bull, wines, chocolates, fruit juices, cheeses, pastries and jams.

Since 2002 there has been good cooperation between the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, the Chamber of Commerce and the agricultural promotion agency, Agrarmarkt Austria, in promoting Austrian food exports on the global market. Before and immediately following the accession of the new EU member states in May 2004, there were ten food presentations held in the capitals of Eastern Europe. The result was that exports increased by 21% on average in those countries where this initiative had been undertaken.

Last year the export initiative was expanded to create access to large markets further away from Austria. Based on this initiative, Federal Minister for Agriculture Josef Pröll and the President of the Chamber of Commerce Brigitte Jank, inaugurated in 2008 the concept of “Austrian Weeks” in the supermarket chain Food Emporium. On this occasion thirty-four Austrian food companies participated in offering many of their specialties – from mountain cheeses to the imperial chocolate cake, from jams to pumpkin seed oil, from energy drinks to pastries – the palette covered different Austrian tastes. Until May 29, 2008, New York consumers could also taste the more than 100 different Austrian specialties in all Food Emporium stores in Manhattan.

In a market where health food is gaining in importance and organic retail sales are growing by 20% each year, the Austrian Minister of Agriculture sees an enormous potential for Austrian food in the United States.

Hans Kordik has been the Counselor for Agricultural and Environmental Affairs at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. since September 2007. He holds a masters degree in agricultural economics from the University of Agriculture in Vienna. After five years with the Austrian intervention board Agrarmarkt Austria he joined the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management in 1999. He also served one year at the Austrian Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels before being called to work in the cabinet of the Minister for Agriculture and Environment. During the last 4 years he was Head of the Department for EU-Coordination and Spokesman for  the Special Committee for Agriculture.