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Nation develops growing appetite for food imports Release date: 2023-12-07    Source:China Daily

Demand rises for wide range of produce and products from overseas

A new fresh milk product was unveiled by New Zealand dairy brand Theland during the sixth China International Import Expo in Shanghai last month.

Transitioning from being a mere exhibit to a tangible product in just 72 hours, the new arrival was delivered to consumers' doorsteps through Tmall, Alibaba's business-to-customer e-commerce platform.

On a Monday, the milk was taken from cows on a New Zealand dairy farm, processed in the company's factory and loaded onto an airplane that evening. The following day, it reached Shanghai Customs, ready to be distributed, before finally reaching consumers on a Wednesday.

Imported food has increasingly become a feature on Chinese dining tables, and in addition to milk from New Zealand, coconuts from Thailand, cherries from Chile, red wine from France and pine nuts from Afghanistan are in demand.

As the sources and varieties continue to diversify, imports have emerged as a vital addition to China's wide range of food supplies.

At the same time, domestic enterprises are shifting from a global purchasing strategy to strategically establishing a worldwide supply chain with an emphasis on global manufacturing.

At the CIIE, the food and agricultural products exhibition area stood out with the highest number and widest range of participating enterprises. The exhibition area was attended by more than 1,000 companies from over 100 countries and regions, showcasing the widespread appeal of the Chinese imported food market.

More than 40 percent of the coconuts imported by China each year come from Indonesia, the world's leading coconut producer. Indonesia also accounts for nearly 30 percent of global coconut production, and is a major raw material supplier for the domestic coconut processing industry.

During the expo, Joyvio Group, a producer and online vendor of fruit in China, signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Indonesian agricultural and food giant PTPN Group, and with the AGL Group.

The three parties will join hands to assist imports of key Indonesian agricultural produce such as coconuts, tea leaves and coffee beans to the Chinese market.

As a pivotal event at the expo, the 2023 China Import Food Summit was held on Nov 7 at the National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai). The summit was organized by the China Chamber of Commerce of Import & Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-products.

The China Food Import Report 2023 released during the summit highlighted the fact that China has become the world's largest food-importing country, with a total import value of $139.62 billion last year — year-on-year growth of 3.1 percent. This year, the nation's total food import value is forecast to reach $140 billion.

The top two source countries by import value are the United States and Brazil, which respectively account for 12.1 percent and 9.2 percent of China's total global food imports, followed by New Zealand in third place, with 7.8 percent.

The report said China's food import value has grown consistently in recent years, with China Customs statistics showing that the average compound annual growth rate reached 12.3 percent from 2013 to last year.

Six major categories of imported food and agricultural produce — meat, grains, aquatic products, fruit, dairy products and vegetable oils — comprise nearly 80 percent of the nation's total food import value. Import values for each of these six categories exceeded $10 billion last year.

Growth potential

Arla Foods, the Danish dairy industry leader, has taken part in the CIIE every year since the event was launched in 2018.

Frede Juulsen, head of international business for Arla Foods' Early Life Nutrition Business, said China's per capita consumption of liquid milk is about one-third the global average, a sign of significant growth potential. Furthermore, the penetration rate of high-end dairy products in China is gradually increasing.

The report also said the growth of China's imported food industry is due to four key factors: the vast scale of the global single market; reduced tariffs; expanded sources for imported food; and an increased variety of imported food products.

Bai Lu, deputy director of the General Administration of Customs' import and export food safety bureau, said Chinese customs authorities will continuously enhance the import food safety supervision system. They will also innovate regulatory technologies and accelerate the implementation of smart Customs procedures, with a particular focus on developing the Smart Food Safety system to improve clearance efficiency.

Imports of food and agricultural produce from the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have experienced robust growth.

A report on such imports by China from BRICS countries last year, which was released at the 2023 China Import Food Summit, said they reached $72.7 billion, a growth of 10.6 times compared with 2006, and representing 31 percent of China's total food imports.

The report added that such imports by China from BRICS countries last year rose by 15 percent compared with 2021. The main import categories include soybeans, meats and meat products, aquatic products, vegetable oils and grains.

In particular, Brazilian beef, king crab from Russia, Indian spices, South African citrus fruits, red shrimp from Argentina, oranges from Egypt, and Ethiopian coffee have gained popularity among Chinese consumers.

During the CIIE, New Zealand agricultural produce was in demand among consumers on Tmall, while in the top live broadcasting rooms on Taobao, premium items such as imported prime cut beef ribs, Manuka honey, New Zealand's latest milk products, and Pic's peanut butter featured prominently.

Grahame Morton, New Zealand's ambassador to China, highlighted the close economic and trade relations between the two nations, emphasizing the rapid growth of e-commerce cooperation.

He said Tmall plays a crucial role in providing a robust infrastructure for overseas brands to enter the Chinese market, as the platform has successfully helped hundreds of New Zealand brands connect with millions of Chinese consumers.

More than 10,000 of the imports that are thriving on Tmall include coveted items such as Chilean cherries, milk from New Zealand, Norwegian salmon, and red wine from Argentina, among others. These products have rapidly penetrated the Chinese market through the platform to become "must-haves".

Data released at a news conference held by Tmall during the expo show that sales of imported food on the platform surpassed 50 billion yuan ($70.2 billion) in the first three quarters of this year, and this food comes from more than 130 countries and regions. Furthermore, this category has experienced year-on-year growth for three years.

Tmall's 2024 global direct procurement plan shows that the platform aims for sales of food imports to reach 10 billion yuan within one year.

Li Yan, deputy general manager of the fresh food industry at Tmall, said the platform's data reflects increasing demand in China for food imported from countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI.

"Among the imported food brands taking part in the Double 11 promotion, more than half were from Belt and Road nations," Li said, adding that Tmall has established dedicated live broadcasting sessions to specifically showcase products from BRI countries.

Chile is one of the nations to sign a memorandum of understanding for the BRI with China. An agreement Tmall reached in 2015 to import Chilean cherries has significantly shaped the market, and during this time, cherries have become extremely popular on Chinese dining tables during the Spring Festival.

At the CIIE, Tmall launched an ambitious 2023-24 season super sales plan for Chilean cherries, sales of which are forecast to reach 2 billion yuan.

Three-year plan

Charif Christian Carvajal, director of the Europe and Asia market at the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association, said Tmall's four major initiatives for promoting Chilean cherries are in line with the association's three-year plan for the Chinese market.

"By using the platform's initiatives, we will collaborate with exporters from the association to enhance quality and service experiences, with the aim of meeting the consumption demands of different consumer groups in first-tier, second-tier and emerging markets," Carvajal said.

On Nov 14, the European Union collaborated with the digital new retail brand Freshippo and the Chinese recipe-sharing app Xiachufang to launch its first meal box sales in China.

The launch was part of the EU's global "Enjoy! It's from Europe" program, which was introduced in China in 2019 to promote the trading bloc's food and beverage products.

The meal box retail promotion ran from Nov 13-30 at nine Freshippo stores in Beijing, with a focus on meat, dairy products, olive oils, infant food, fruit and vegetables, sweets, wines, spirits, beer and pasta, among others.

Wojciech Ptak, agriculture counselor and first secretary of Delegation of the European Union to China, said, "European food products are known for their top safety and quality levels.

"You can buy and enjoy them with peace of mind, because stringent safety production standards, traceability and quality controls are guaranteed for the products through the whole production chain, from farm to fork.

"During this promotion, we will aim to showcase and communicate the EU's key food merits — quality, safety, authenticity and sustainability."

Jia Meng, head of Freshippo's Global Go business, said it has seen an impressive 78 percent growth in sales this year, paving the way for more than 200 international brands to enter the Chinese market.

Freshippo's collaboration with overseas retailers and brand owners has evolved beyond product importation to a joint manufacturing approach, Jia said.

"In the context of global price differentials, we have undertaken various initiatives this year. In the liquid milk segment, we visited eight countries and regions, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the US, and compared the best prices for similar products to ensure optimal value for our customers," Jia added.

Global supply chains hold the key to China's imports of orange juice, with 60-70 percent of the nation's market relying on such imports due to the predominant use of domestically grown oranges for fresh fruit sales, rather than juice production.

Data from market consultancy, which is based in Beijing, shows that from January to October last year, China imported just over 92,512 metric tons of frozen orange juice, with nearly 70 percent originating in Brazil.

Neng Jen Huei, general manager in China for Brazilian juice brand Natural One, said, "While daily juice consumption is commonplace in Brazil, it is not as prevalent in China. Nevertheless, I see substantial annual growth in the Chinese market."

Freshippo has forged a partnership with Natural One, which not only features flagship products, but also a juice tailored specifically for Freshippo based on the taste preferences of Chinese consumers.

Lin Zhengyan, Freshippo's purchaser, said that as pure orange juice tends to be too sour for most Chinese consumers, the brand has collaborated with suppliers to include a certain amount of apple content in orange juice. This blend preserves the fundamental orange flavor while naturally enhancing the juice's sweetness, meeting the dual demands of health and flavor from consumers.

With Natural One's factory situated close to orchards, freshly picked oranges undergo pasteurization in just 15 seconds.

By using a fully sterile filling room throughout the entire cold chain process to China, this new product is scheduled to appear on shelves at Freshippo outlets early next year.

By Li Yingxue