Shop manager Zhao Heng leaps into action when he is asked about the availability of imported meat products, eager to convince customers that they will soon be back on the shelves.
His food retail outlet on Shanghai’s Lancun Road, called Master, took a hard knock from the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly after the virus was detected on packaging of imported seafood at Beijing’s Xinfadi wholesale food market in June.
With Chinese consumers now fearful of tainted food shipped from abroad and a dwindling supply amid tighter controls by Beijing, Zhao’s store – like many others – was forced to cease stocking the high-protein meat products.
But buoyed by a rising number of inquiries from customers in recent weeks, he believes things are about to get better again.
“It takes some explaining about imported proteins,” Zhao said. “We believe that the successful containment of the coronavirus [in China] has given our store a ray of hope amid a strong recovery in demand.”
After the Xinfadi outbreak, mainland Chinese consumers shied away from once-popular premium protein products ranging from salmon, beef and pork to fruits.
Beijing halted shipments of European salmon after traces of the pathogen were found on cutting boards at Xinfadi. The stepped-up monitoring of imported frozen food has restricted the supply of foreign proteins reaching retail outlets.
At the Master outlet, foreign beef and seafood products are not currently available.
“It was not just about the supply,” Zhao said. “Local consumers did not want to buy them either.”
Some still don’t. Lu Yuyi, a 65-year-old retired worker in Shanghai, said she had yet to be convinced that imported proteins were safe to eat.
“China’s victory over the coronavirus does not mean that we can eat other countries’ meat now,” she said. “Nutrition and taste are important, but safety and health are the priority.”
Zhao said the shop has dealt with an increasing number of queries about foreign meats and seafoods since late August as demand slowly picks up once more.
The Covid-19 disease has infected 27.1 million people worldwide and killed at least 883,000 since it was first detected in January in Wuhan, the capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.
China emerged from nearly three months of lockdown after containing the virus in April, but a cluster of infections at Xinfadi in June has deterred consumers from buying imported premium food products.
Chen Xiao, chief executive of Shanghai Yacheng Culture, a firm that deals with marketing and branding for food companies, said import volumes have fallen sharply this year, although official data had yet to be released. He struck an optimistic note about the outlook.
“The key question is not how severe the losses over the past months turned out to be,” he said. “If consumer demand recovers in the near future, the sharp drop would have caused just a one-off loss. Food companies, wholesalers and retailers are avidly expecting that business can return to normal soon.”
In the last decade the growing affluence of mainlanders has sparked a rise in demand for high-quality foods, prompting foreign companies such as Tyson Foods and Danish Crown to rev up their expansions into the world’s most populated market.
The market for meat products on the mainland is valued at more than 1 trillion yuan (US$150 billion), and Chinese people’s increased spending on healthy, safe and fresh beef added lustre to the market before the Covid-19 outbreak.
In 2018, China consumed about half of the world’s pork but more than 95 per cent was sourced from domestic supplies.
China’s pork businesses hit a snag last year in the form of swine fever. In July alone, the country’s pig population slumped by a third from a year earlier.
Pork prices more than doubled throughout the year.
The shortage of pork ushered in more demand for imported products, with foreign suppliers queuing up to fill gaps in the Chinese market.
Sergio Segovia, president of Apex-Brasil, a Brazilian trade promotion agency, said the South American nation is keen to tap the animal rendering business – converting waste animal tissue into edible products like lard – in China buoyed by the mainland’s increasing reliance on imported animal products.
“Brazil is one of the world’s four largest producers of animal products and can contribute to animal-based food in China,” he said. The meat sector, aside from soybean, has become one of the new growth drivers for trade between China and Brazil.
“We firmly believe that several industries – biofuels, fruits, dairy products and animal rendering – have potential regarding the diversification of products exported to China,” he added.
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