When I arrived in Riyadh in the early 1990s, I worked with Almarai which is the largest dairy company in the Middle East and as we all know dairy products are temperature and time sensitive. We spent a lot of time, energy and money in improving the quality of the supply chain from cow to customer.
What always struck me in the rural communities outside the big cities was their almost total lack of understanding about how to act appropriately when it came to making sure our products were correctly looked after. Shopkeepers would switch fridges off overnight to save money not realising the risks they were introducing, and when power cuts happened for prolonged periods they never thought about the defrosted frozen stock. Many frozen items were sold that should have been thrown out but that was the way things were.
Back in those days if you spoke to Saudi villagers they shared their concerns over frozen products, particularly meat products. Saudis are some of the biggest consumers of chicken, and back then there was a big push to sell frozen chicken from Brazil in Saudi and there was a very poor uptake from the consumers. Why? The simple answer was suspicion that the product had suffered from cold chain problems and could cause food poisoning. In the rural areas almost everyone wanted fresh chicken and would prefer to go to a shop where live chickens were in cages where they could pick the bird they wanted and have it prepared for them as they stood in the shop.
Us in the West have enjoyed the benefits of an almost totally uninterrupted supply of electricity since the 1950s and a cold and frozen supply chain that works. When we visit farmers markets we are presented with lots of fruit and vegetables, cheeses, jams, etc. Meat products have been packed for sale and offered as chilled or frozen. In summary we have trust in the markets, and anything that is temperature sensitive we are confident it has been handled correctly and go home feeling a sense of well-being buying something direct from the farmer.
In countries where we are asking the people to live differently and abandon wet markets, this for them is alien and something the West does not really understand. They are poor, lucky if they have intermittent electricity supply and do not have the home appliances. We have poorly educated people when it comes to handling food that has been packed in a far away factory, especially frozen and chilled products. They stick with what they know and trust.
Unfortunately today we all travel extensively. We have in the world close to 70 million expatriates in foreign countries and in countries like China there are 150m internal migrant workers who are imported from poor villages into the east of the country. We have millions of Egyptians, South East Asians and those from the Indian sub-continent working in the GCC, and most of them are from villages and fill the need for lower paid manual workers. All those people on the move bring with them their habits, including eating habits. They are poor and their dietary needs are very different to what we expect in the West. In the GCC the coronavirus is rampant in the accommodation where the poor expatriates live in cramped and often poor quality accommodation.
Anyway, seems to me we have been very lucky so far only to have virus outbreaks that have not killed tens or hundreds of millions. If we continue as we are doing all this stuff we are doing today, locking down societies and taking action after the event, we can only expect soon the ‘big one’ the scientists are predicting.
I’ll stop there.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]