And Finally

The return of SPAM

And we’re not talking about the stuff in your email inbox…

If you can't afford SPAM...

Cometh the hour, cometh the SPAM – or at least that is what Shanghai canned food manufacturer Ma Ling Aquarius is hoping.

Ma Ling is picking up on news in the US press that cash-strapped American consumers are trading down in their grocery shopping – and that processed meat sales are on the up as a result. The Chinese firm hopes that this will lead to a boost in luncheon meat exports.

SPAM (the trademark requires capital letters) seems to flourish in tougher times. Invented during the Great Depression, the brand has been enjoying another purple patch in the last few months. Whatever you think of it in dietary terms SPAM is pleasingly priced. Workers at brand owner, Hormel Foods Corporation in Minnesota are on production line overtime to meet current demand. And now Ma Ling wants a piece of the action.

Ma Ling itself has been through challenging times in recent years, struggling to break even between 2005 and 2007, and slipping into the red for the first three quarters of last year. Spiralling pork prices have reduced operating margins and a mid-2007 product recall on some of its canned food range damaged customer confidence.

More broadly, hopes that US consumers might shift towards cheaper Chinese fare are probably optimistic. The 21CN Business Herald notes that Chinese food firms have struggled to increase exports (as a percentage of sales) but puts this down to there being more than enough domestic demand growth to concentrate on. Perhaps it should have mentioned that overseas consumers are cautious about Chinese products thanks to repeated quality scares.

The Herald also mentions the cultural vagaries of culinary appreciation. But, then again, dietary disconnect can also offer opportunity. City Weekend, a Shanghai magazine, reported last month that Hormel has an export strategy of its own; it is trying to convince Chinese consumers that SPAM is a premium taste.

Currently the meat is popular as an ingredient in hot pot but Hormel wants to broaden its repertoire. So SPAM is being repositioned in terms of its “meaty, juicy satisfaction” – the Rmb20 ($2.90) choice of local go-getters.

Just in case they don’t grasp the message that SPAM is going high-end, potential customers will be treated to a roving city-by-city corporate show featuring an athlete in a SPAM costume, bouncing up-and-down on a trampoline.


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