In an earlier column, I reported that China has rapidly become a growing market for plant-based meat. However, it does not change the fact Chinese consumers still overwhelmingly prefer the real thing.

Meat used to be a minor ingredient of the daily diet of most Chinese. This changed dramatically during the last decade of the 20th century. With growing spending power, meat played an increasing role in Chinese home cooking. Consumers did not only eat more meat because of the perceived nutrition; it was a sign of increasing wealth.

Eating meat regularly used to be a prerogative of the wealthy and now more and more Chinese are able to show off their newly acquired wealth in their shopping cart. The total meat supply in China exceeded 87 million tonnes in 202, according to Chinese newspaper Global Times.

Because Chinese consumers’ embracing of meat took place more or less simultaneously with the increasing urge to reduce time spent in the kitchen, conveniently packaged ready-to-use meat products also quickly appeared in Chinese supermarkets.

These products can be roughly divided into two categories: meat-based snacks ready for consumption and packaged, processed meat used as a cooking ingredient or as part of a meal. As I have reported on meaty snacks recently, this column will concentrate on the second category.

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Chinese use (semi-)finished meat products more often in cooking than is usual in Western cuisine. Not the largest but the most interesting example of this phenomenon is luncheon meat – which is also the Western type of packaged meat Chinese consumers have adopted with love.

Chinese consumed CNY17.37bn worth of luncheon meat in 2019, up from CNY8.99bn in 2014. They sometimes eat slices of plain luncheon meat on a sandwich, but more often pan fry it first.

A variation on this is first dipping the meat in egg-like French toast. The result is served as a complete dish. Shreds of luncheon meat can be stir-fried with about any vegetable to add a meaty taste to the latter. The advantage of using luncheon meat is it already contains spices and other flavouring ingredients. You can thus cook a complete meal with only two ingredients; a real-time saver.

The popularity of luncheon meat is shown in a photo I recently took in a Beijing supermarket. You will recognise Spam. McDonald’s in Shanghai offered Spam Burgers for one day on 21 December: a bun with two slices of Spam sprinkled with Oreo crumbs. All 400,000 burgers prepared were sold out before noon, according to CNN.

The photo shows Spam brand owner Hormel Foods is already active in China. Other foreign brands available in supermarkets are Tulip from Denmark and Betchina from Russia.

However, the top ten most popular luncheon meats on Tmall, one of China’s leading online stores, do not include any foreign brand. The McDonald’s campaign did not do anything for Spam because the restaurant failed to clarify the link between the one-time treat and the meat (e.g. by adding a picture of a can of Spam in the ad). A case of missed co-branding.

Another big product is the ham sausage, a generic term for a broad range of ready-to-eat pork sausages. They have become a favourite snack to take along on an outing or a long-haul train ride. They, therefore, come in small sizes, individually packed.

However, Chinese also like to have a stock of thicker ham sausages at home, which they slice and eat as an appetiser to go with their pre-meal drinks before the hot dishes are put on the table; a kind of Chinese tapas. According to Intelligence Research Group, the Chinese market for ham sausages was worth CNY14.66bn in 2019.

Based on the acceptance of European sausages by Chinese staying or travelling in Europe, I would expect a number of suppliers, like Unilever with its Unox brand of knackwurst, would be very active in China. The reality is very different. One obstacle could be Chinese consumers find canned sausages inconvenient and prefer individually packed sausages.

In a Tmall list of the top ten most popular ham sausages on its site, Hormel ranks nine, the only foreign company on the list. The US manufacturer operates a plant in Beijing, which makes the logistic part of its operations in China a lot easier.

A related but smaller product is the grilled sausage (ham sausages are cooked). Most are pork but sausages with other meat are also available. No published statistics are available but it is a smaller market than for the ham sausage. They are used in more or less the same way but Chinese are less used to grilling or barbecuing meat, so they still prefer the flavour of cooked meat.

Tmall’s top 10 of this type includes two foreign (American) suppliers: Hormel and Johnsonville. The latter entered China in 2007 by opening a sausage restaurant to study consumers’ tastes and started local production a few years later.

Another interesting segment is ham. China has a tradition of ham curing, with Jinhua in Zhejiang as the most famous region. On the outside, Chinese hams resemble their European counterparts but the flavour is quite different. The value of this market in 2019 was CNY14.66bn, up from CNY10.55bn in 2015, according to AskCI Consulting Co., a Chinese business analytics firm.

Cured ham can also be used in Chinese dishes to give a meaty flavour to vegetables but can also play a more prominent role as the main ingredient, accompanied by some fruits or vegetables. Preparing it makes the ham softer and more chewable. And where as Europeans eat ham thinly sliced, Chinese prefer thicker slices.

This market is open for foreign suppliers of ham but I have not noted much activity yet. There is some promotional activity by suppliers of Spanish ham in China but they need to hurry. One Chinese investor, Fosun International Ltd., has already bought a stake in Osborne, the parent company of Cinco Jotas, one of Spain’s top brands of Ibérico ham.

The opportunities mentioned here are overwhelmingly centred on pork. Mutton, poultry, etc., are less popular in the presentations discussed in this month’s column. An exception is duck. A number of companies have therefore developed duck wings, duck tongues, duck necks, duck hearts or duck gizzards as one-bite snacks. They are usually individually wrapped. However, as China is already so famous for its (Peking) ducks, it will be hard for foreign parties to win a share of this market.