Two leading Australian universities are partnering with China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) and Suzhou’s Soochow University to facilitate Australian manufacturers’ entrance into China’s rapidly growing cheese market.
Monash University and the University of Queensland are launching a joint symposium to be held in Beijing in October, in collaboration with some of the world’s biggest cheese manufacturers alongside COFCO and Soochow University.
International manufacturers confirmed to attend the symposium include China’s Mengniu Dairy, Denmark’s Arla Foods, New Zealand-based Fonterra and France’s Sodiaal.
A wide range of Australian manufacturers have also been invited to participate, with Bega Cheese the largest group to have confirmed its attendance to date.
Cheese is one of the fastest-growing categories of China’s dairy market, with consumers increasingly targeting imported products.
Valued around $350 billion, the Chinese dairy market is expected to be worth around $500 billion by 2020.
Research by market analysts Mintel indicates cheese consumption grew by between 15 and 25 per cent between 2015 and 2017, compared with the wider dairy market, which grew by around 6 per cent over the same period.
Mintel said while Chinese consumers were regaining confidence in domestic milk sources and products, imported options remained their preference.
However, while the industry was experiencing rapid growth, COFCO acting director of consumer insight and market research, Guo Fei, said there remained a lack of awareness in China of how to consume cheese products.
Ms Guo said outside of Mongolia, where cheese and other dairy products had been part of the traditional diet, cheese was viewed as a western food among the Chinese population.
“There are different cheese products in the market and there are different uses and scenarios, however, Chinese people do not have the knowledge on how to use different types of cheese products,” Ms Guo told Australia China Business Review.
“The challenge for producers is to allow Chinese consumers to get used to these types of product.”
Growth in cheese consumption, Ms Guo said, was largely occurring in China’s tier one cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, with consumers seeking cheese for its nutritional properties as well as taste.
“In these cities, you can find young people who have had a learning experience abroad, they have the knowledge of how to use cheese products,” Ms Guo said.
“They then influence their friends, so in tier one cities, producers will meet smaller challenges to launch their products.”
Ms Guo said the symposium would provide the opportunity to educate Chinese consumers, as well as establish a network between the Australian and Chinese dairy industries and research institutes.
The symposium will enable international manufacturers to discover Chinese cheese preferences, in order to fully penetrate the growing market.
“We have found that some products that perform very well in Denmark, in Australia or New Zealand, however, for the Chinese consumers, they have very different feelings,” Ms Guo said.
“For Chinese consumers, they really like sweet, soft cheeses which are full of milk flavour, and more mild cheeses, as compared to other tastes.
“However, we try to make a balance between nutrition and taste before we try to educate the consumer.”
Ms Guo said Australian manufacturers had a real opportunity to capitalise on the country’s reputation for high-quality, nutritional food products by providing new cheese options.
“For all Chinese people, they think Australia is a very good source for food,” Ms Guo said.
“If we ask consumers how they feel about food that comes from Australia, they would say ‘it must be very natural’.
“Also, they know that Australia is famous for health supplements, so they also get an image that Australian products are nutritious.
“However, for a lot of Chinese people they cannot tell the difference between products that come from abroad – not just compared between Australia and New Zealand, they also cannot tell the difference between other western countries like those in Europe.
“So, we suggested for Australian producers, don’t just mention the environmental benefits, try to tell Chinese consumers the unique things they have that other countries don’t have – they need to have a clear country image for their cheese products.”