Irish dairy firms hope to milk some new opportunities in China
As tastes change in China, and more dairy is eaten, Irish firms find their reputation helps them enter the market
China is often touted as a land of opportunity, but it is when people talk about the food industry that the possibilities become really tantalising. Food is central to everything in Chinese culture.
“Have you eaten?” is a standard greeting still for many Chinese. People talk endlessly about food, ensuring that dishes share a harmonious balance of the five flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty.
All major decisions are made against a backdrop of numerous dishes. A great job for life in the civil service is still called the “iron rice bowl”. The philosopher Lao Tzu has compared good governance to the correct preparation of a fish dish.
There are great opportunities across the board – pork exports are a big component of overall trade, dairy products are growing strong, but there are other areas including food-safety consultancy, and querying whether a ban on beef imports from the EU (imposed after the BSE crisis) be lifted.
China is changing and modern diets are changing with it; expanding beyond the traditional rice and noodle staple to include items that were once considered absurdly exotic, such as cheese.
Kerrygold butter and Dubliner cheese can now be found on the shelves in some, though by no means all, Chinese supermarkets.
A seismic event in the Chinese food industry, and its relationship with the rest of the world, came in September 2008, when six children died, nearly 52,000 were hospitalised and a further 294,000 became ill after drinking domestically produced infant milk formula contaminated with the chemical melamine. “Many in the industry see the melamine scandal as the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sharon Palmer, US group PerkinElmer’s food director for PerkinElmer Analytical Sciences and Laboratory Services division.
“There is a huge burst for smaller processors to learn how to improve their food safety. Government regulators recognise the need to improve and streamline things, to provide better oversight from the tractor to the table,” says Palmer.
China has poor rates of breastfeeding, with over 70 per cent of mothers using baby formula rather than breast milk to feed their babies, and foreign formula brands now account for about half of total sales.
Irish dairy has a strong reputation and food companies from Ireland are active in the infant formula market in China.
Dairygold is the leading supplier to the Chinese market of demineralised whey, a key ingredient of infant formula. In October last year, Kerry signed a partnership deal with China’s leading domestic baby formula brand, Beingmate, to supply dairy ingredients.