More and more consumers are choosing higher quality foods that improve their health and Irish meat is perfectly placed to meet these needs, explains Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) Market Specialist, Kieran Fitzgerald
In 2020, China imported more meat than ever with imports growing by 60% to over 10m tonnes, further highlighting the attractiveness of this market for international meat exporters. For Irish meat, however, it has been a very different story for beef and pig meat. In early 2020, the foodservice channel – traditionally our strongest channel – suffered some disruption but had returned to growth by the end of the year. The impact of Covid-19 is still present in the supply chain, causing delays for imports, but has not caused considerable difficulties for Irish exporters.
Consumer behaviour around the world has changed since Covid-19. Research carried out in China by Bord Bia in the Future Proofing Toolkit has some positive takeaways for Irish meat exports. Over two thirds (66%) of consumers are eating food that boosts their immunity, and 65% are buying better quality food. Irish meat exporters are perfectly placed to meet these demands. Research from Mintel, released in February 2021, compared changes in dietary habits between 2019 and 2020 and it revealed that over two thirds of respondents (65%) will cook at home more this year than last year. This may be a concern for the foodservice sector but will create opportunities for retail.
Last year was a record year for Irish pig meat exports to China, with a value of €202m, growing from €119m in 2016. However, as China pig meat production capacity increases, demand and prices for imported pork are set to decline as we move towards 2025. Our goal is to sustain these figures as Chinese production recovers.
China is a mature market for pig meat and in 2019 we set out to see where we could add value and build more stable demand. As pig meat is generally sold unbranded and without origin, last year we set out to create a differentiated position for Irish pork.
Through our research, the regions of interest we have identified are the Sichuan and Guangdong provinces, with a combined population of over 200 million. We are also focusing on the traditional large markets of Shanghai, Beijing and Qingdao. As part of our strategy, we have identified the cuts that would be most competitive, and in some cases unique breeds that we could use as unique selling points.
Foodservice is the traditional and highest value channel, but we have also run promotions across ecommerce and mainstream retail to grow awareness at consumer level and to differentiate Irish pig meat while exports are still strong. This approach has been successful to date and we are making progress on the positioning of Irish pork, both at a trade and consumer level.
The key to building this sustainable and stable demand is working with strategic partners. This model has worked very well with beef importers over the last few years. We identify suitable strategic partners or master importers with high-value channels and develop strong partnerships. We work with partners to identify their key customers and drive sales through their channels. This allows us to execute targeted promotions and build a loyal customer base that is more resilient to market instability.
We have had a busy year of pork promotions. Bord Bia, in cooperation with the European Commission, is currently running the ‘EU Pork and Poultry – Excellence in Quality Assurance and Food Safety’ campaign (value of €3.8m, 2020 - 2022), which has allowed us to scale up pig meat promotion significantly. Since September 2020, we have run several events, including trade events in Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Qingdao. To coincide with Chinese New Year, we ran an online campaign with Key Opinion Leaders (KOL), our first event of this kind in China for pig meat. In the first half of 2021, we have rolled out trade seminars, chef events, VIP lunches and food promotions across China. Our calendar for the second half of the year is in review and we hope to include a Minister-led trade mission. We will have a presence at CIMIE Qingdao in October and FHC in Shanghai in November.
Irish beef exports to China were suspended in May of last year, however prior to that export figures had been performing well, almost doubling in the same period in 2019 to 2020, rising from €13m to €23m. There is pent up demand for Irish beef imports in the market once they are available. Beef imports will continue to grow as China demand for beef rises quicker than production capacity. Prices are strong and have been supported by the rising pork price in recent years.
Our strategy is to continue to grow the preference for premium Irish grass-fed beef among trade and consumers. We had very successful entry into the beef market and have built up strong awareness among importers, chefs and consumers. We have prioritised foodservice and retail, and we support partnerships to drive demand through the supply chain and ensure a win-win outcome for Irish exporters and their Chinese partners. Irish beef is a high-quality imported product suitable for daily cooking. Ireland is a pristine island covered in grass where we produce beef in harmony with nature. Our message is based on the strong attributes of our beef which are health, food safety and nature.
Beef promotion has been ongoing since May 2020, featuring product that was still available in the market. It is important for us to remain active and to work with customers of Irish beef in China. Our focus has been on channel and awareness building, and we have been maintaining the relationships we have built in recent years. Between April and October of 2020, we ran retail promotions in Beijing and Guangzhou, trade seminars in Shanghai, Chengdu, Qingdao and Guangzhou, and an ecommerce consumer promotion on Jd.com. In November, we ran two Chefs’ Masters events, one event in Shanghai, and a livestream event from Beijing that attracted over 25 million viewers across China. Foodservice is still the primary focus as it drives the largest volumes and biggest margins, but ecommerce campaigns are important: 300k families bought Irish beef online in 2020, which is a great boost for awareness.
CHEFS’ MASTERS SERIES
One initiative we have developed is the Chefs’ Masters Series where we work with master chefs of Chinese cuisine and influential KOLs to develop modern recipes from traditional Chinese cuisines using Irish ingredients. Most of these chefs have large online followings and can be considered KOLs in their own right. They are followed on their journey of recipe development by the KOLs who share the process on their social media, so by the time of the main event, we already have millions of views. We have also run the Masters’ Series as a livestream event, reaching over 25 million Chinese consumers. This is key to boosting awareness of Irish beef and driving online sales throughout China.
The success of online retail and e-commerce in China does not need any explanation here. The reach and ability to generate consumer awareness over vast geographies by ecommerce is far greater than that of traditional campaigns. Research carried out by Bord Bia in 2020 shows that since the outbreak of Covid-19, 70% of adults are shopping more online and 53% are using live streaming in China. We look forward to continuing our successful e-commerce and live streaming promotions in 2021.
Bord Bia works closely with our partners to ensure a win-win for the development of Irish meat in China. Our partners know their market better than anyone and we work closely with them to design impactful promotions. These include working with their customers to explain the uniqueness of Irish beef and how premium grass-fed beef from Ireland is the perfect ingredient in Chinese cuisine. We look forward to working with current and future partners on a one-to-one basis to further develop the awareness and success of Irish beef in China.
CHINA BEEF RELAUNCH TIMELINE
We hope to regain market access for beef as soon as possible in 2021 and our relaunch plan will be put into action immediately following the Chinese government announcement. It will begin with social media messaging followed by print media campaigns. We will then run a number of trade events, ecommerce promotions and KOL events. We also look forward to exhibiting at CIMIE Qingdao in October and FHC in Shanghai in November.
As always, everything we do will be tied into our communications plan which is focused on raising awareness and position of Irish beef and pork with trade and consumers. We have been building a range of digital assets to support online and offline events including beef production and processing videos and recipe videos for both consumer and chef inspiration. We look forward to using these assets in our promotions with existing and new partners in the months and years to come.