Sizzling sales

British farms enjoying pork boom in China

Customers choose slaughtered pigs at a wholesale pork market in Hefei, Anhui province

Increasingly they’re buying British

Fancy a slice of Devizes pie? Typically eaten cold, the traditional dish from Britain’s West Country consists of sliced calves brains, pickled tongue, sweetbreads (cuisine chat for the pancreas) and hardboiled eggs. Or how about trying some Bath Chitterlings (pig intestines) or Lancashire tripe (cow stomach)?

For most Brits the response to such an offer is a resounding ‘no’. Rising incomes led the UK’s working classes to stop chewing on every last piece of gristle many years ago. But for many Chinese, rejecting animal parts is still seen as wasteful. Often, the choice is as much about culture as cost too. Pig ears and trotters are considered a delicacy, for instance, rather than a low-cost option. Legend even has it that a century ago triads targeted children as kidnap victims by watching what they were eating. If they tucked into a piece of chicken breast, the kids weren’t worth nabbing (the implication: that their families were poor). But nibblers of items like chicken feet were putting themselves at risk (a luxury treat).

When a Chinese delegation of chefs visited Britain to learn more about Western cooking ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics they were said to be appalled by the offcuts they saw discarded in the dustbins. Since then, however, the British have discovered a more profitable path for their unwanted cuts. As Steve Barnes, a director of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, told the Financial Times: “Chinese people have different eating habits. They will eat some things we do not, such as chicken feet and animal offal.”

He added that the “complementary” nature of the two countries’ eating habits means the Chinese market has “great potential” for British agriculture.

In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his counterpart Wen Jiabao signed agreements on five processing plants to export pork to the Chinese, and China became the UK’s biggest export market for pork last year (with offal, entrails and pig heads popular).

In fact, the value of Chinese imports of porcine products exceeded even whisky (£60 million of the £217 million export total, compared to £53.6 million for whisky, according to Meat Management Magazine).

Pig semen sales have also flourished since 2013 and exports are now worth £45 million a year. Ironically, the British are probably exporting animal DNA back to Asia, where wild boar (sus scrofa) first originated about 2.8 million years ago, becoming domesticated (sus scrofa domesticus) about 10,000 years ago.

The snout-to-tail supply chain isn’t quite complete, however, with British producers waiting for approval to ship pig trotters to the East. After that, the next sweet spot for farmers could be chicken feet, says Time Weekly. British poultry farmers are currently destroying the animal parts, which is the equivalent of “throwing millions of pounds into the dustbin”, the newspaper laments.

China consumed 200,000 tonnes of imported chicken feet in 2013, paying around Rmb2 billion ($322 million) for them.

The approval process to start UK shipments of chicken feet is now underway, with British officials and vets visiting China to ensure that it meets local food standards. Time Weekly adds that the British government has also appointed its first Chinese consultant specialising in food and agriculture. The expert’s first priority could be the beef and lamb industries which are negotiating for export licences in the hope of replicating the pork industry’s success.

Last year, British food exports to China were up 82% in annual terms but the UK’s farmers believe the potential is much greater. Partly that’s because sales to China lag those to Britain’s more traditional export markets by some distance. If the sector could match its sales to the current biggest market – Ireland, the Daily Telegraph reports – that could deliver a boost to Britain’s balance of payments in excess of £3 billion.

Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, once quipped in his typically unrestrained style that the Chinese will eat anything on four legs, except chairs. But in this case, their appetite seems to be working to his subjects’ advantage…

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