Canned food – a luxury item in China

In Western households, canned food is kept for when you have little time to prepare a meal. In China it is regarded as a luxury food

A major production and export country

The canned food industry is one of China’s earliest food industries with a good foundation and fast development. As the opening text of this post already states, canned food used to be regarded as a luxury product. As a result, canned food was mainly positioned as export product. And indeed, those exports have made a great contribution in generating hard currency over the decades. China has been able to stay in the ranks as a processor and exporter of canned food such as tomatoes, asparagus, bamboo shoots, yellow peach, orange, etc. The world’s largest canned food producers are also located in China.

Where are the canneries?

Canned food is produced all over China and food is usually canned near the place where the fruits and vegetables are grown and the animals are raised. E.g., Zhejiang province has been the largest export region for canned tangerines for decades. The top region is Fujian province and Zhangzhou in particular. In a previous post I already reported that Zhangzhou is often mentioned as the ‘Capital of Canned Food’ in China. A top product in this respect is canned mushrooms. 80% of the canned mushrooms exported from China leave the country via Zhangzhou. The above map shows the location of canneries in various regions of China in 2012.

Some figures

In 2017, China produced 12,395,600 mt of canned food, up 3.75%. The industry generated a total turnover of RMB 175.387 bln; up 5.46%. In the same year, China exported 2,744,800 mt of canned food; down 3.32%. This generated an income of USD 4.66 bln; up 1.3%. Canned seafood was the largest export product with a volume of 336,400 mt. The USA and Japan were the main recipients of Chinese canned food with a rate of 14% each, followed by the EU with 11% and Russia with 5%.

Domestic consumption of canned food

The canned food market in China is not plain sailing. Especially in recent years, with the increasing concern for healthy food among Chinese consumers, the image of canned food has suffered due to the long shelf life, adding preservatives and other misunderstandings, but the industry as a whole has so far withstood the test. At present, China’s canned food consumption level is still very low with only 6 kg per capita while the consumption is at 92 kg in the United States, 56 kg for the EU, and 30 kg for Japan.

Issues

China’s canned food industry is coping with problems of overcapacity, disorderly competition, unfortunate product structure and lack of innovation, while there is a huge potential market to be stimulated.  In recent years, the international market competitiveness has declined as the cost has been rising. Especially adjusting the product structure has become a priority. In fact, the changing lifestyle of the younger generation, with a busier pace of life, is posing a new market opportunity for the canned food industry in China. To cash in on that, innovation is imperative.

Strong association

As is emerging from several posts in this blog, associations are a strong influencing factor in the Chinese food industry. This also applies to the China Canned Food Industry Association (CCFIA). Established in Aug. 28, 1995, the CCFIA is the only national wide legal organization entrusted by the Chinese Government. Its members include canned food producing enterprises, sale companies, research, inspecting, detecting units, equipment manufacturers, raw material providing companies and management departments and units. The CCFIA is the representative of the common interests of the members. Its aim is to promote the development in canned food industry in China and provide high quality services to all the members.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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Tomatoes in the Chinese kitchen and even more for export

The tomato belongs to a large group of plants of the nightshade family. Its cousins include potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers, all popular ingredients in China.

No one can pinpoint the exact dates these vegetables were introduced to China, but the general consensus is that they came through both the overland and maritime trade routes. The national output of fresh tomatoes for 2017 is estimated at more than 56 mln mt.

There is a chicken dish cooked by the Uyghurs in the north-western entry point of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region that combines almost all of them. Known as “big pan chicken” or dapanji, it is a rich, tomato-based stew with chunks of potatoes, lots of onions and plenty of bell peppers. That probably gives us a hint on the early beginnings.

Good ingredients are treasured by Chinese chefs who often go out of their comfort zones to seek them out. Foreign imports such as potatoes are now staples, and the chili pepper, too, has been naturalised.

The tomato’s brilliant colour and natural umami flavour have made it another essential ingredient. In fact, the classic sweet and sour dishes of southern China now depend mainly on the tomato, where it used to be the hawthorn fruit that coloured and flavoured in the past.

It used to be harvested only in summer, although it is now available all year round, thanks to bigger, better greenhouses and a countrywide logistics network that connects north to south and east to west. Xinjiang is currently by far the largest production region of tomatoes in China. This product has become so important, that China has started investing in tomato production in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

The northern Chinese mainly consume tomatoes raw, in thin slices liberally covered with caster sugar. More than a few Europeans have to grow accustomed to eating sweetened tomatoes. The most favoured hot dish with tomatoes is tomatoes with scrambled eggs (xihongshi chao jidan), which is everybody’s favourite. I used to travel in China with a Dutch client who was not a lover of Chinese stir fried dishes, but he did like scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

Tomatoes are now used to stuff dumplings, pairing with such stronger-tasting meats like beef and lamb, and is cooked down to a sauce for hand-cut noodles. It is not only used to accompany noodles, but is actually worked into the noodles themselves, like spinach.

The love of tomato-flavoured stews in north-eastern China can also be traced to the Russian influence of the past. For certain older generations, the only Western restaurants in the capital at that time served Russian food. For them, Russian food meant a strongly tomato-flavoured borscht, a hearty tomato and beef stew and minced-meat-stuffed cabbage rolls slowly stewed in a thick tomato sauce. That was the pinnacle of gourmet eating in restaurants with names like Old Moscow, or Kiev.

Times have changed. Modern Beijingers still love their tomatoes, but they are more likely to consume them as pizza sauce or over spaghetti. Modern chefs, many coming from overseas, have also introduced other new ways of eating tomatoes.

Tomato paste

The top industrial tomato product is tomato paste. If your mind connects tomato paste with Italy and Italian cuisine, you need to update your settings. China, in particular Xinjiang, has the world’s prime production region for tomato paste for a number of years. Several Italian companies import it in bulk an can the Chinese product in Italy, to export again as a ‘typically’ Italian product. However, the exports of tomato paste have been dropping, partly due to adverse weather conditions and partly to regional protectionism that is on the rise globally. China has exported appr. 852,000 mt of tomato paste in 2017. That is considerably lower than the top year 2011, when China exported 1,128,459 mt.

Tomato-based ingredients

Although exported could increase again, the Chinese tomato processing industry needs to look for tomato-based ingredients with a higher added value. One such product is lycopene. It is offered as a dietary supplement claiming to aid the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer.

A good indication of the current situation of any food ingredient in China is looking at the participants of the Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair (March 22 – 24, Shanghai). The following table shows exhibitors of various tomato-based products at that fair.

Product number
Sun-dried tomatoes 1
Dehydrated tomatoes 1
Tomato paste 3
Tomato powder 7
Lycopene 9

It seems that suppliers of tomato paste or dried tomatoes do not regard FIC as their typical trade fair. However, FIC is clearly the place to look for tomato powder and lycopene.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.