Speaking in his Beijing office, he said: "Our association has been advising the government to encourage consumers to eat more beef and lamb," he said, rather than the more commonly consumed pork and chicken.
Gao noted that consumer perception of beef and lamb has become more positive nationwide: "In the past, only northerners want to eat them [beef and lamb]. Now, southerners also want them. People used to eat them in the winter. Now, people want them no matter which season."
He added that prices for beef and lamb had increased more than 10% in the past decade, fuelled by China’s runaway economic growth. As Chinese consumers’ income and standard of living improves, demand for red meat has grown. Consumers are expected to increasingly consume imported meat and meat products, said Gao.
Greater consumption of meat has raised government concerns about China’s food safety standards, whose strengthening could further boost demand, said Gao. "Previously many food standards were not compulsory, but that is going to change," he added.
He noted that the government’s State Council (cabinet) had discussed improving food standards in February. This has been followed up with requests for help from the association, which has started discussing its detailed response. "The government has empowered our association to draft more industrial regulations and standards," said Gao.
Chinese consumers tend to trust the quality of imported meat products more than domestic products. "Generally speaking, consumers think legally imported meat has better taste and quality and that it is safer," he added. Still, imported meat only makes up a small percentage of China’s meat consumption, he noted.
For now, only meat imports from six countries – Canada, Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand – are allowed into China. "Beef from Australia and lamb from New Zealand are most commonly seen at China’s supermarkets," said Gao.
But he said there was potential for more imports as the government has signalled that more beef and lamb imports could be allowed in future.
There has been interest from other foreign meat exporters to enter China’s market; for instance, representatives from the meat industry of the Netherlands have visited the CMA, "showing high interest in exporting their speciality products to China", said Gao. He noted China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) was still considering applications from a number of countries to export meat to China.
One potential growth area for new exporters could be offal and meat by-products, tapping into Chinese consumers’ demand for such products, said Gao. Statistics from China’s National Bureau of Statistics noted that, as of 20 January, the total annual production of pork, beef, lamb and chicken meat products in mainland China was 85.4 million metric tonnes.