Nation’s farmers cater to taste for foreign foods

Patricia Kontur was surprised when the blueberry export business to China was hit by a sudden slump last year, after five years of consecutive gains.

The slump was not caused by shrinking demand but by rising competition in the mainland, said the export program director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, which oversees blueberry farms in Maine.

“Domestic players may not have heard of ‘blueberries’ just a decade ago. But now many of them can mass-produce the berries and guarantee Chinese consumers a much lower price,” she said. “You just can be in awe of what China can accomplish.”

Imported foods, until recently a rarity in China, are becoming more and more common, buoyed by an increasingly affluent population and high-profile food scandals.

The US Association of Food Industries has forecast that China will become the largest consumer of imported foods, having a market of 480 billion yuan ($76 billion) in 2018.

A noticeable shift has occurred within the past five years: Chinese food companies are looking to produce cheaper versions of Western foods, squeezing the margin of foreign exporters.

For instance, the blueberries previously available in China primarily originated in North America.

But domestic production of the fruit skyrocketed, showing compound annual growth rate of 134 percent from 2007 to 2010 and hitting 5,000 tons by the end of 2010, according to a report by the Chilean Fresh Fruit Exporters Association.

More than 10 blueberry companies, registered in the past five years, have set up operations in China’s northeast provinces, where soil requirements and climate conditions are perfect for growing such fruit, data from the Blueberry Research Institute of Dalian University show.