Chinese demand for olive oil is growing rapidly but the niche market remains challenging for new entrants, producers have said.

China imports about 20,000 tons of olive oil a year, less than a tenth of the amount imported by the US, according to Jose Alcazar, manager of Facilita Supplier Services, a Spanish consulting company.

Still, sales are growing by about 80% each year from a low base, Alcazar said at the FHC Beijing trade show. This growth has prompted several producers to invest in the market.

"Over the past year we have spent lots of time and money on this market. We consider it to be of strategic importance for the future," said Blas Molano, export account manager for Sovena, the world's largest producer of private-label olive oil, which also makes the Oliveira da Serra brand.

Molano said working with Chinese customers is "not that far off", with many supermarkets increasingly interested in private labels.

Demand for olive oil is being driven by its reputation as a healthy product as well as Chinese consumers' rising consumption of Western food. 

However exporters admitted that the market is challenging. Most people still buy olive oil for gifts. "People like the expensive bottles but they don't really know what's inside," said Joaquin Sanchez de la Torez, China export manager for Spain's Aceitex, producer of the Oro Virgen brand.