As you walk the floor of the SIAL show in Paris, you are at once caught up in in its size and variety. You know it is one of the world's largest food shows, but that doesn't really prepare you for the vast expanse of food on display here in seven huge halls: over 5,000 exhibitors; more than 136,000 attendees; an incredibly diverse selection of food from 100 countries.
More olive oils than you have ever seen before. Cheese, pasta, baked goods from all over the world. Belgian chocolate couverture. Italian biscotti. Scottish shortbreads. Raw meat, poultry and seafood from every region of Europe, dressed and proudly displayed, without guilt, in the Old World tradition.
It is a feast for the eye and the mind's palate. And even if nothing else, SIAL is a graduate school lesson in how to display and merchandise food to its fullest advantage.
But the real business here is business. You are struck by the serious tone of the attendees and events. The je ne sais quoi that's missing? Those shopping bag interlopers looking for free samples that characterize so many U.S. food shows.
Plenty of sampling goes on at SIAL, but most takes place in small, private negotiating areas inside the main booths. Some are outfitted as white-tablecloth dining rooms, complete with wine service; others are simply tables and chairs enclosed by glass or hidden behind display walls. Face-toface deal making goes on constantly.
You become very aware that the international trade competition you read about in the U.S. is in full swing here, and is a long-running war with many fronts.
In every aisle, commodities compete on a global stage: kiwi from California and New Zealand. Rice from the U.S. and Asia. Cheese from Wisconsin, Switzerland and France.
Positioning along ecological and environmental fronts is a major tactic. Many vendors lead their pitches with an emphasis on organic growing practices, nutrient solution recycling, integrated pest management. One brochure shows a herd of (free range?) cattle, grazing contentedly on a hillside with a view of the Alps. It would grace any U.S. travel poster.
Commodity marketing is both art and competition. Each country promotes its products as different, superior, unique. For many, differentiation is a matter of economic survival for particular industries and, in some cases, a way of life.
The U.S. pavilion shows still another front in this war. We also promote commodities, but they are outnumbered by companies selling processed and packaged foods. America's romance with convenience, brands and 'grabandgo' illustrates another global trend. But some of the most sophisticated packaging is European, often employing clear plastic to display food in raw form. Clearly, this is a war that is philosophical as well as economic.
Foodservice as a distinct entity has a growing presence here, although the blur between food at home and away from home is even more pronounced than in the U.S.. Exhibitors offering products related to foodservice are said to account for nearly half of those who participated in the last show. SIAL is like a macro version of the small bakery, produce and meat shops that are ubiquitous throughout Paris itself. Food here is ever present, part of the fabric of everyday life and lifestyle. C'est la vie!
For more information on SIAL 2006, to be held October 22-26, contact U.S. marketing representative Julie Halas at 704-365-0041.