China may wane as meat export market

China is one of the world’s largest meat consumers.

It currently consumes 28 percent of the globe’s meat, including half of its pork. While the average Chinese consumer used to eat about 13 kilograms years ago, meat consumption is now up to 63 kilograms per person.

These are staggering numbers, and if nothing changes, they will only go up.

Chinese public health officials are now recommending consumers eat 40 to 75 grams of meat per day and look at alternative sources of protein. That is 50 percent less than current levels.

Less meat consumption will not only cause changes for China but also for the rest of the western world, particularly Canada, which would affect our relationship with animal proteins.

Every decade, as many nations do regularly, Chinese health officials revisit their food policies and issue a new food guide to influence consumer behaviour. Since the last guide, the food landscape in the country has changed dramatically.

The average Chinese consumer now eats 63 kilograms of meat a year. In fact, at current rates, meat consumption per capita could increase by another 30 kilograms by 2030.

China, where 1.3 billion people live, even considers KFC a great place to have a romantic encounter.

For several decades now, they have embraced animal proteins in their lives and have considered them as part of how social classes are defined. In other words, the rich should and must eat meat.

That attitude, however, is slowly eroding. With several food safety scares and health issues emerging, China is thinking differently about meat consumption as public officials recognize that it is important to make changes.

New guidelines recommend a reduction in meat consumption per capita from 63 kilograms of meat per year to 14 to 27 kilograms per year. The underlying intent, of course, is to reduce obesity and other health challenges for its population in the future. Yet implications go beyond the health of its citizens.

It may also help from an environmental perspective.

Globally, livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of climate change emissions. This change has many environmental groups welcoming China’s decision.

However, for Canada, it may warrant a change in how we grow Asian markets.

We currently look at trade deals as gateways to untapped markets where consumers are craving for more animal proteins.

Discussions about protein quality around the world are slowly going mainstream, and many governments are increasingly becoming concerned about the sustain-ability of livestock production. Therefore, calculations to measure the potential of Asian markets may need to be revisited as a result of these new guidelines.

There will always be a market for animal protein, but it can only grow by recognizing value-added features.

A&W, McDonald’s and even Earls with its recent humane beef kafuffle are chains that can speak to how complicated meat consumption is becoming.

As markets mature and become more fragmented, consumers will look for products that reflect how consumers see the food supply chain and responsible production practices. Animal welfare, organically focused methods and locally produced commodities have won market currency in many places around the world. Oddly, when looking at national food guides, China is seeing things differently.

Animal protein consumption has been managed and stewarded differently in North America.

Lobby groups representing the beef industry have successfully defied governments that want to suggest new meat consumption guidelines.

However, with China’s call to encourage consumers to look at proteins differently, our beef industry may be at odds with current global trends.

Per capita consumption for beef is dropping in Canada, a trend that has continued for decades. Consequently, a change in the architecture of the industry only makes sense, and these adjustments need to happen quickly.

Perhaps other Asian countries will follow suit.

Since it has a highly organized and co-ordinated economy, China may succeed with its call to reduce meat consumption over the next decade or so. It will be interesting to see how North America and Canada reacts. But for now, China may have understood something that the western world has yet to grasp.

Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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