Reverse engineering the export to Asia model
Tardy trade agreements and competitors with sharper elbows have nudged the Australian share of China’s food import market down to 3.3%.
The AgriFood industry is grappling the problem night and day with endless rounds of forums and initiatives, none of which I shall bore you with here. But it is a good opportunity to reverse-engineer the issue and look at what Chinese-flavoured consumers grab off the Australian grocery shelves when they pay us a visit.
Some of Crackling’s relations by marriage have come to visit from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, East Malaysia. Whilst they are out at a large shopping Mall foraging for more goodies, I take a peek in my mother-in-law’s fridge and see what has taken their fancy.
Firstly, it is clear the diary aisle has taken a hammering
- Soft cheese coated with fresh herbs
- European style hard cheese blocks
- And generic full flavoured cheddar ready cut in to slices
As a food technologist and food industry watcher, let me see where the constraints lie on getting these products in to Asia:
- Packaging will preserve the shelf life for at least 21 days so that should be no problem.
- The products are clearly visible within those packages, so where in lies the problem?
While Australia produces many fine cheeses, some of which are world class, I would imagine the branding is not packing a massive punch amongst Chinese consumers. If French or British cheese is available, and you know that is where cheese comes from, then that’s what you ask for.
Next up is the Deli counter
- Chicken Liver Pate
All gas-flushed pre-packed and chilled with a decent shelf life. All good. However, again nothing uniquely Australian about these items.
The biscuit aisle. Now the Aussie branding kicks in good and proper. No description necessary.
The rellies have also stopped by the Italian bakery to pick up a two foot long vanilla custard Mille Feuille (that disappeared at the speed of light, let me tell you, and I was too slow.).
However, the most prized category was Fruit. Chinese style people place a great deal of value in the organoleptic, especially visual, qualities of fruit. They choose a broad range of colours and the plumpest and most perfect specimens of each.
Over the dinner table, Mr Crackling is paid to eavesdrop on the conversation (in the Hakka dialect) and reports that as well as the taste, freshness, quality of the flesh and sheer size of the fruits a great deal of value is put on the associated medicinal properties of each fruit beyond the flavour it yields.
“Persimmons are good for inflammation, grapes are good if you have high cholesterol, don’t have too much of this or that because it will result in……” the translation went. I’d better up the translator’s rates next time, clearly.
The joy and novelty of eating foods on a foreign holiday was also important. Items that were expensive at home were very popular and much discussion was devoted to their freshness and size. Sensory analysis was a big topic of conversation making comparisons and preferences rather than blanket praise. While many items are available in Malaysia, grown locally or imported, the freshness aspect was a big bonus.
Perhaps fresh produce could be the key to upping Australia’s market share in China. The massive middle class in China uses food purchases as a status symbol and values foreign imports for their quality and safety (melamine in baby milk, remember?). Fruits and vegetables can be temperature controlled very well over long periods of storage and transportation (although what happens to them at point of sale is another matter, I wish I had my camera to hand when I saw a Singaporean vendor blast a basket of mangosteen with half a can of Mortein insect killer.)
Despite extremely the high quality produce, technical innovations and novel functional food products Australia has to offer and is hard at work developing, I suspect it will all come down to price points and beaurocratic red-tape in the end. I will keep you posted if there is an Australian breakthrough.
Handing over the translator’s fee, I ask what the relatives ate at the Mall. Mexican? Italian? Aussie Roast and three veg? The answer was a Chinese buffet. Before I can begin to conceal my look of disdain I am told that these food explorers are not so narrow as to be wary of anything out of their comfort zone, but interested in seeing what Chinese style food tastes like outside their own country. Perhaps there is a parallel blog article somewhere in Kota Kinabalu right now.
Later that week they also dined on Aussie fish and chips. And cut them with a salad, of course. That’s the ying and yang value add. Perhaps it’s what we are missing.
* Australian Food and Grocery Council figures correct at time of writing.