Thai Food Industries

The food industry is an important contributor to Thailand’s economy and has earned the country the sobriquet “Kitchen of the World.”

Thailand is one of the world’s top ten producers and exporters of food, including processed food products. Its food industry accounts for as much as 28 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The country’s natural resources, year-round growing season, relatively low labor costs, and skilled, well-educated workforce provide Thailand with competitive advantages in the food processing arena. Thailand produces more than 80 percent of the raw materials its food industry uses.1

Thailand is one of the largest producers and exporters. In 2008, Thailand’s agricultural and food products which include rice, tapioca, processed, fresh, frozen and canned food and sugar totaled more than US$22 billion. This amount comprised sugar and tapioca (more than US$1.4 billion of each product), processed chicken (more than US$1.5 billion), canned, frozen, and processed seafood, excluding shrimp (US$4.1 billion), frozen and processed shrimp (more than US$2.3 billion), and fresh, frozen, canned and processed vegetables and fruit (more than US$2.2 billion).

Thailand also is an important global source of other types of fruit, vegetables, condiments, coffee, vegetable oil, nuts, babycorn, pineapple, canned food, juice and concentrates.

The world’s number one exporter of rice, Thailand is diversifying into new rice products such as rice noodles, vitamin-fortified rice, organic rice, frozen rice dishes, and rice snacks. In 2008, Thailand exported 10,216,127 metric tons of rice valued at US$ 6.2 billion – a 79 percent increase over 2007, and additional growth is expected.

Thai food processors also are developing more frozen food products to meet the demand of domestic and foreign consumers. Frozen and cooked crustaceans are Thailand’s third largest export category internationally.

For the past 10 years, Thailand has been America’s largest supplier of shrimp and its fourth largest global supplier of fish and seafood. Thai prepared fish and meat rank first among all Thai food exports to the United States, which imports more of these products from Thailand than from any other trading partner.

From January through October 2009, Thailand exported more than US$17 billion worth of food products to the world and more than US$2.5 billion to the United States. During that period, the top six food categories exported from Thailand included prepared meat and fish (US$4.4 billion to the world and US$998 million to the United States), cereals (US$4.3 billion to the world and US$295 million to the United States), fish & seafood (US$2.0 billion to the world and US$610 million to the United States), sugar (US$1.7 billion to the world and US$17 million to the United States), preserved food (US$1.3 billion to the world and US$408 million to the United States), and miscellaneous food (US$877 million to the world and US$93 million to the United States). U.S. imports from Thailand represented 30 percent of all prepared meat and fish imports, 16 percent of cereals, 8.7 percent of fish and seafood, 7 percent of preserved food and 5 percent of miscellaneous food.

Thailand is the number one producer of organic food in Southeast Asia, and the Royal Thai Government has a strong commitment to expanding organic production, reflecting the nation’s 700 year history of organic farming. Organic condiments, rice products, and coconut products are among the foods being introduced internationally.

Thailand’s food processing sector began to develop in the 1960s as the Royal Thai government encouraged technology transfer. Before then, Thais had preserved food primarily by drying, pickling, and sugar glazing. Importing technology from Japan and Taiwan to process sweetened condensed milk, canned fruits and vegetables, and vegetable oil, modernized the food industry, and exports of Thai processed foods increased significantly.

The industry grew rapidly in the 1980s with increased market demand and the importation of new and advanced technologies from the United States and Europe. During the following decade, exports of frozen and chilled commodities surged.

The 1990s through the present time have seen a greater emphasis on quality, hygiene, sanitation food safety, wholesomeness, lowered production costs, value-addition, and adherence to environmental regulations in Thailand, in response to international competition and demand.

Thai and international authorized food safety agencies, as well as third-party organizations certify standards applied to agriculture commodities and food for foreign consumption. Thai standards adhere to such international standards as Codex, OIE Standards, and the International Plant Protection Convention, and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). Quality assurance systems are also mandatory for products such as canned and some processed foods.

Although as of 2007, about 90 per cent of Thai food producers were small and medium enterprises, the industry has been developing by taking advantage of the country’s abundant labor force and raw materials.

More than 10,000 food processing companies comprise the Thai food processing industry. Among the major Thai and multinational industry leaders in the country are Nestle, Saha Pathana Inter Holding Ltd, Patum Rice Mill & Granary, Royal Friesland Foods NV, Unilever Group, Thai Union, Dole Thailand, Charoen Pokphand Group, Betagro, Saha Farms, Thai Beverage PLC, Kellogg’s, Kraft, PepsiCo, Del Monte, Procter & Gamble, Ajinomoto, and Ef-Fem Food. Increasingly, Thailand is becoming one of the world’s most dynamic food centers, thanks to its expertise in product development, food processing, and agriculture.