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Organic Food and Vegetable Products, a Sino- the Times

U.S. exporters, eager to keep up with the newest in Chinese food trends, are always alert to new market indicators, and one of the latest, signaling strong and clear, is the organic or "green" food movement.

As documented in countless other countries, the desire for organic foods accompanies consumers having attained a certain comfort level. And the organic or "green" food movement is well underway in China.

Traditionally characterized by good taste, high nutritional quality and a reputation for purity, these foods have been finding their way to the retailers' shelves since 1990, from wet markets and small groceries to large supermarkets. Most of the green foods consumed in China are fresh vegetables, dairy products, fresh or live poultry or seafood.

Regulations in Place

vegetablesThe Ministry of Agriculture's China Green Food Development Center in Shanghai has donned the mantle of leadership in the green food field. Now recognizing about 800 varieties, the Center recently issued a regulation called "Green Food Grading Standard." The regulation divides green food into "A" and "AA" grades and sets up the norms for green food products and packaging.

Whether food producers will follow these regulations is a moot point, but getting standards in writing is a beginning for exporters who would like to explore the market. The standards are supported by China's central and local governments. An English version will be available from the U.S. Agricultural Trade Office in Shanghai by April 1998.

Codified standards will also benefit the development of consumer demand for green products. A defined product helps raise retailers' and consumers' consciousness--once consumers understand the benefits green products entail, they will be motivated buy them.

Shanghai Develops "Green" Areas

While Shanghai consumers were among the first in the country to buy the new green foods, production in and around the city has been lagging, even though many small green production operations have sprung up around China.

Recognizing the dearth of green farming lands, the Shanghai municipal government is planning to develop three local production areas for green foods in agricultural sectors that are deemed environmentally clean:

  • Shanghai Sunqiao Modern Agricultural Development Area. Covering 4 square kilometers in the Shanghai Pudong New Area, the project carries out experimental operations in horticulture and aquaculture as well as mass production of vegetables, flowers, plants, fruits and melons. It is designed to integrate the industrial processing of agricultural and food products, bio-engineering and tertiary industries such as a recreational resort.
  • Chongming. At 238 square kilometers, it is China's third largest alluvial island. Its size, pure waters and clean environment make these projected annual yields quite probable: 3,000 tons of grain, 70,000 tons of fresh vegetables, 1,240 tons of eels, 300 tons of fresh-water crabs and 2,740 tons of seeds or seedlings.
  • Shanghai Xu Jing Green Engineering Base in Qingpu County. With just 400 hectares to be sown, this complex is reserved for only seeds and saplings.

The Future Is Convenience Foods

Increased living standards bring about an increased interest in food variety as well as quality. Chinese consumers, influenced by traditional cultural tastes, have become more particular about vegetable color, taste, smell and shape. Food industry experts predict the following food products will have a bright future into the next millennium:

  • Spicy vegetables. Besides their hankering for pungent taste, Chinese consumers believe spicy foods can help the body dissolve fat, reduce fat sediment and help resist cancer.
  • Vegetable powder. Added to fermented doughs to make vegetable breads or noodles, the powders can also be made into instant soup, especially catering to the nutritional needs of children who dislike eating their fresh vegetables.
  • "Convenience" vegetables. In China, this term refers to fresh vegetables packed in plastic bags for immediate use. In larger cities, demand has outstripped supply for foods presented this way.
  • Canned vegetables. Especially popular are cucumbers and peppers that cater to regional preferences.
  • Trademark vegetables. Bagged processed vegetables sold under brand names have been introduced to Chinese consumers. Their instant popularity is considered the harbinger of what will become the mass production and processing of vegetables under domestic and global name brands.
  • Vegetable crisps. Popular fried and sponge food snacks are taking on a healthier twist. New drying techniques for fruit and vegetables like radishes, melons and potatoes allow the delicate flavors to survive the cooking process.
  • Enriched vegetables. Though the process is embroiled in controversy, a number of scientists are experimenting with trace elements to improve the nutrient value of vegetables.
  • Vegetable chips. First introduced in Japan, these dried and pressed snack products are made of fresh vegetable paste with added binders and, sometimes, flavor enhancers.
  • Vegetable beverages. First made to compete with carbonated beverages, these drinks, made by squeezing the juice from fresh vegetables--sometimes with added flavor enhancers--retain their original flavor and nutrition.

The author is an agricultural assistant with FAS' Agricultural Trade Office in the American Consulate General, Shanghai, China. Tel. (011-86-21) 6279-8622; fax (011-86-21) 6279-8336. E-mail: atos@public.sta.net.cn