A cruel combination of factors has led to a decline in UK exports to a country once flagged as the promised land, but the market is changing as Elaine Watson discovers at Portugal's Alimentaria Flick through the exhibitors' catalogue at Portugal's Alimentaria Lisboa, the fourth largest food fair in the world, and you'll struggle to find a British name among the swathes of Portuguese, Spanish and multinational food companies touting their wares to an estimated 50,000 visitors. Food from Britain set up shop in Lisbon in 1999, proclaiming a country barely one third the size of New Zealand and the "poorest in the EU" to be a land of untapped promise for British exporters. Two years on, FFB Portugal md Luis Garcia admits it hasn't all been a bed of roses. The strength of sterling, increasingly aggressive competition from France and Spain, and Britain's unenviable reputation as the leper of Europe in the wake of BSE, swine fever and foot and mouth disease, have contributed to a steady decline in the volume of products traditionally shipped to Portugal ­ chiefly pork, sheepmeat, fish, beef, dairy products and selected ambient groceries. The MLC, the only Brits with a stall booked at Alimentaria, quietly pulled out just weeks before the show as foot and mouth finally killed off a meat export market already crippled by the BSE crisis. While beef and veal export volumes to Portugal have declined steadily since 1995, Britain was its largest sheepmeat and pork supplier from the EU, before foot and mouth struck. But Garcia is not about to pack up and go home. If Portuguese retail buyers are steering clear of British meat, they can't get enough of our breakfast cereal and Scotch. Every variety of Scotch whisky is on sale at Portugal's largest hypermarket ­ the Continente anchor store in Lisbon's premier Columbo shopping mall ­ from The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark to Speyburn single Highland malt. And Weetabix takes third place on the cereal aisles behind multinational competitors Nestlé and Kellogg, outselling local brand Nacional. Distributed by local firm Ramazotti, Weetabix is determined to grab a bigger slice of the breakfast cereal market ­ growing 11.6% by value year-on-year ­ by targeting young women with bitesize cereal treats as Portuguese consumers discover cereal is not only for breakfast. And they are also partial to our cheese, says Dairy Crest International marketing manager Rupert Taylor, who flew out to the show to meet its local distributors in Portugal. Dairy Crest exports hard and soft cheeses and spreads to Portugal, including top UK brands Clover and Cathedral City. Via local distributors, DCI has channels of distribution to all the major retail and foodservice channels and volumes grow every year. However, the real opportunities for GB firms, says FFB, lie in convenience foods, cereals, chocolates and above all whisky, which is growing 11% by value year-on-year. Scotch has a wide appeal, says Garcia, who is launching a major initiative to promote the drink to the Portuguese consumer. By parachuting in whisky expert Charles Maclean and hoards of local press to launch the Single Malt Club at the show, FFB is going all out to "show the range and diversity of Scotch whisky" available to the consumer, says Garcia. "The Portuguese market represents a huge opportunity for malt suppliers." Companies sponsoring the club include UDV with Johnnie Walker Malt, William Grant with Glenfiddich and The Balvenie and local firm Ramos Pintos, which distributes Glenrothes and Glengoyne. Potential recruits will be invited to tastings, targeted with direct marketing, and receive a regular newsletter. A number of firms have set up joint ventures with local companies to distribute and market their brands, notably William Grant which has teamed up with Caves Alianca. Others have opted to buy into a domestic player to provide a launchpad into the marketplace, particularly Scottish & Newcastle, which last year bought a 49% stake in Portugal's second largest brewer, Centralcer. With a 40% share of the beer market and distribution channels in place to take Kronenbourg, Newcastle Brown Ale and Fosters into a new market, Centralcer offered S&N the "best route into market you can get," says Garcia. Meanwhile, Cadbury and Tetley have dedicated staff based in Portugal, but the vast majority of British suppliers sell to traditional importers and distributors such as Ramazotti, Frutogal, Martins & Costa and Viborel, which have a long established distribution to all the major retail chains, independent buying groups and foodservice distributors. Where appropriate, FFB tries to cut out the middlemen, most recently inviting buyers from top Portuguese retailer Jeronimo Martins to London's IFE to establish more direct links with British suppliers. Gaining access to the shrinking, but still substantial, independent sector is more difficult, and Weetabix has a dedicated sales team tasked with breaking into this market. Jorge Marques dos Santos, the chairman of Alimentaria, is keen to sell his country as an attractive retail market for overseas suppliers and a good place to set up production facilities with low labour costs, efficient infrastructure and attractive EU investment subsidies. "The Portuguese market is very open and the Portuguese consumer is not nationalist. So if you have a good product there are opportunities for you here ­ especially if you make whisky," he says. And he is proud of his government's record on food safety and the special relationship between retailers and producers to "track products and ensure quality products are on the shelves". The government, he says, is determined to keep foot and mouth disease out of Portugal. "The bad news is it creates fear among consumers about meat in general. The good news is that we have acted quickly to keep it out." If the disease spreads from France to Spain, from which Portugal has no natural frontiers, the agriculture ministry will immediately adopt a vaccination policy. {{FEAT. GENERAL }}