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Exporting Food & Beverage to China: A Strategic Guide

May 26, 2022

The Chinese import food sector is a profitable and dynamic market. As China's middle class expands, so does its need for imported commodities, with a surge in demand for non-local foods such as cheese, olive oil, chocolate, and so on. Because of ingredient concerns, as well as safety and sanitary concerns, foreign products are frequently seen as safer than domestic items. Imported food also reacts to shifting consumer preferences among the younger generation, who favour Western brands over native names.

As a result, the Chinese market is appealing to companies and businesses looking to develop their operations in the world's most populous country. In this article, we will provide you with all of the secrets to effectively exporting your goods to China and utilizing the platforms at your disposal.

We have teamed up with the most recognizable and well-known Web & Marketing Agencies in China. Our services include E-Commerce, Search Engine Optimization, Advertising, Weibo, WeChat, WeChat Store, and Public Relations, among others.


China’s Imported Food: A Dynamic and Lucrative Industry

Overview of the Chinese Food Market

What Drives Food Imports in the Middle Kingdom?

Chinese Consumers’ Purchasing Behaviours

How are Chinese consumers looking for new products?

Why do Chinese consumers “prefer” imported products/brands?

Why is China a promising market for foreign food brands?

Taxes are decreasing

Chinese consumers are looking for new culinary experiences

In China, Imported Food Products can serve as Gifts

What are the challenges when exporting food products in China?

Steps to exporting food products to China: How do I start

Chinese regulations & Government Guidelines: export food safety

Do I need an export license to sell F&B goods in China?

How can F&B professionals increase their sales & profits in China?

What are the main channels of distribution for food Product & brand in China?

Selling food products offline: The classic strategy

Selling Food Products Online through your own website

Cross-Border E-Commerce platforms: The Best Way to Sell Imported products in China

Bet on Digital Platforms to Develop your E-Reputation in China

Social media are the best tools to increase your e-reputation

Improving your ranking on Baidu: China’s leading search engine

Gaining visibility thanks to influencers

Get in touch to export F&B brand in China?

How can Linked Digital Services help you?

China’s Imported Food: A Dynamic and Lucrative Industry

China is the world's second-largest economy and one of the most rapidly increasing marketplaces for food and beverage businesses. Its growing desire for higher-quality, premium, well-known food brands was driven by urbanization and an increase in disposable money, which was supported by China's digitalization. Before entering the Chinese food industry, you should aim to have a deeper grasp of the habits and consumption trends of Chinese customers.

Overview of the Chinese Food Market

When discussing imported goods in China, keep in mind that China's food supply has enormous consequences for both national food security and commercial commerce. Following many natural catastrophes hurting wheat and dairy production, Chinese residents, who consume more than half of their calories through grains, rely not only on domestic products but also on imports. In other words, China now produces insufficient food to feed its population.

A farmer carries water on a dried-up field in Xinqiao Township, Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Chuxiong, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, July 8, 2015. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Imported F&B items sales in China have grown at a pace of 15% each year, whereas the global average is about 4%. Despite the fact that imported items benefit from a positive image among Chinese customers, this industry is very competitive, with both domestic and international firms. Furthermore, it is vital to note that imported items are subject to greater taxes than local products.

What Drives Food Imports in the Middle Kingdom?

The relative shifts in consumer goods production and demand growth have had an impact on China's position in the global food trade, as it has transitioned from being a significant international player that exports food items to one that imports.

(© Sixth tone)

The self-sufficiency of China’s agriculture has been declining due to the high demand as well as its large population. As of 2009, China was importing around 50% more than it was exporting (National Bureau of Statistics of China – NBSC). Among agricultural commodities, grains are recording the most rapid rise in imports from China. For example, while China was self-reliant on soybean and was even one of its main exporters, in 2020, its import reached 100.33 million tons. The Middle Kingdom is also seeing increased meat imports, with a growth rate reaching 44% between 2011 and 2015 (NBSC).

There are three main reasons that explain why the importation of food products into China is prosperous:

  • Food Safety

After the overwhelming number of food safety-related scandals in China (more than 1,090 in the last three years, according to Jing Daily), it is no surprise that it’s one of the top concerns among customers. In fact, Chinese consumers’ number one concern is food safety, which topped other worries such as water quality or air quality. The government strengthens its food safety law every year.

Because of increased salaries, China's middle class has grown significantly. Life standards have shifted, as have food patterns. They are now concerned with ensuring that their products are safe to consume. Indeed, in recent years, there have been several scandals (particularly involving maternal and newborn goods) that have made consumers less trusting of Chinese businesses, as well as, in certain cases, international food manufacturers. Thus, while exporting food to China, international firms have a chance to demonstrate that their products and ingredients are of higher quality and adhere to national food safety requirements.

According to the data above, 94 percent of respondents believe that there are numerous food scandals in China caused by dishonest firms that are not penalized. As a result, it is critical to adhere to safety requirements in order to compete and attract Chinese customers. To acquire their trust, you must be as straightforward and open as possible.

Around 86% of Chinese consumers pay attention to food security when buying their products. Another interesting point for foreign food producers: most Chinese consumers are against food additives.

88% of Chinese consumers in 1st and 2nd tier cities are against it, and 25% of them prefer to pay more if it does not contain any additive.

  • Healthy Food

Chinese consumers show greater interest in healthy food. It is true that today, consumers are paying more attention to their health and appearance. They are extremely attentive to their body weight, which is according to them synonym of good health.

There is a huge untapped potential in several segments of foreign healthy food products:

As previously said, customers are increasingly seeking nutritious food without additives, as well as organic, low-calorie, and slimming items. Because these four areas have significant potential in China, global businesses should capitalize on them.

Chinese customers are enjoying the new organic trend because they want to consume healthier foods. Over 30% of customers in first and second-tier cities buy organic food on a regular basis. Consumers want pesticide-free goods as well as fresh items.

Having a kid influences Chinese parents to be more mindful about what they consume. Families with better incomes were willing to spend more for organic items at the time, but now everyone is prepared to pay more for higher-quality and healthier products because they want to provide the best for their children.

Healthy products that are popular among Chinese consumers

On another hand, parents in China are starting to take note of the ingredients and nutritional information of what they feed their children in order to decrease the risk of obesity (which was quite common a few years ago among young children).

  • Globalization

Eating is not all about health and safety issues, globalization plays its role. We can say that there is a globalization of eating habits that has impacted Chinese society. Chinese consumers were able to travel more than before, tasting and buying products that were not common in the Chinese culture, and then sharing their experiences with their friends during vlogs or posting pictures on social media.

Over 90% of Chinese customers have already purchased Western F&B items (that are mainly everyday life & agricultural products). Furthermore, purchasing foreign items in China conveys an impression of affluence, as international products are more expensive than native products. It is related to the notion of the face: the more foreign things you have, the better your image will be (even though some domestic companies are gaining popularity in China).

Foreign restaurants are also highly popular in China, communicating a certain dignity for some, with high-quality items that differ from the typical meals of Chinese consumers.

Chinese Consumers’ Purchasing Behaviours

As habits diverge from one nation to the next, Chinese customers will be more likely to purchase specific things, whilst foreign products that are too 'special' will not appeal to the bulk of them.

How are Chinese consumers looking for new products?

With China's recent digitization, the internet has become the primary source of information for Chinese customers seeking for companies. Before purchasing a product, over two-thirds of them will consult Baidu (China's Google) for brand information. The second most common source of knowledge is family, friends, and KOL (Key Opinion Leaders).

Heineken on Baidu

The trend of China's imported item consumption is being driven by youthful impulses and a desire to discover new flavours. Surveys of young Chinese people aged 25 to 34 suggest that they are more than twice as likely as older generations to be heavily affected by social media when picking what to eat, whether it is imported or purchased in grocery shops or restaurants. Regardless of generation, Chinese consumers would undoubtedly choose a foreign brand that is already established and popular in China over an unknown brand that does not even appear in Baidu's search results.

If you want to market your brand or products in China, you should realize that social media and mobile applications outperform traditional media advertising in newspapers and magazines. Print media advertising is no longer a profitable marketing channel in China since it is expensive and difficult to measure. Social media and mobile applications, on the other hand, are beneficial since you can connect with your customers and create innovative advertising.

Having a Chinese name is crucial to Successfully export your food products to China

Mcdonald’s, known as 麦当劳 in China

You should have a Chinese name if you wish to be quickly found on Baidu. In fact, having a suitable Chinese name for your business demonstrates that you care about the Chinese market and are driven and prepared to tailor your brand precisely to Chinese consumers. In fact, it should be the first stage in any localized branding strategy in China since customers will form an impression of your brand based on its Chinese name.

Your Chinese name will embody the value, narrative, and personality of your brand. Chinese shoppers are constantly seeking new and unique products, so make sure you find a means to attract their attention and be visible online. Most of the time, they will conduct web research using your Chinese name rather than your original brand name.

If you wish to sell your items in China, you must also register your trademark in China. Because China is a "first-to-file" country, you should register your trademark before anybody else. For further information, please contact us.

Why do Chinese consumers “prefer” imported products/brands?

Following the multiple sanitary scandals in recent years, Chinese consumers are particularly vigilant about what they eat, as previously said. Many individuals assume that international products are more trustworthy than local ones.

According to the DDMA Secondary Research, 69 percent of respondents (from all socioeconomic groups) firmly think that foreign food is superior, and 60 percent favour restaurants that serve foreign cuisine. This demonstrates that foreign foods are still seen differently and compete with indigenous items. However, as seen in the graph below, it is evident that high-income families take this into account more than low-income ones.

(© DDMA Secondary Research)

How Do Chinese Consumers Purchase Imported F&B Goods?

It is estimated that 65% of Chinese consumers who buy imported food buy online because of the wide variety of products and because it is more convenient. In addition, you can also find better prices through online platforms than in traditional stores.

Moreover, Chinese consumers are accustomed to purchasing online, using popular platforms like Tmall, Taobao, JD.com, Pinduoduo, etc.

What are the most purchased imported products in China?

China imports a wide range of products including dairy, meat, jam, chocolate, and confectionery. Dairy products and snacks are the most commonly purchased products when it comes to foreign brands, which is quite surprising as these products were not part of their habits a decade ago.

When looking at the most purchased imported products in China as of 2017, these products are clearly standing out (according to their number of transactions) :

  • Meat, frozen meat, and aquatic products: 295,000

  • Edible oils: 33,000

  • Dairy products: 77,000

  • Sea products: 111,000

  • Grain products: 100,000

  • Alcoholic beverage: 272,000

  • Candy: 102,000

  • Non-alcoholic beverage: 132,000

  • Dried nuts: 117,000

  • Pastry and cookies: 83,000

Source: General Administration of Customs, P.R. China

Some examples of products that are growing in popularity in China
  • Chocolate: An exquisite product

Chocolate on JD.com

The chocolate sector, for example, is a profitable one for international companies. People may not realize it, but chocolate's rebirth in China is a relatively young phenomenon. While Switzerland and America are at the top of the list in terms of consumption, with roughly 12 kilogrammes per capita yearly, Chinese individuals drink only 6-8kg on average per year. But here's the good news: This figure has more than quadrupled in the last few years, reaching up to 16-20 kg each year. And it doesn't appear like things will slow down anytime soon - there has been such a surge in demand that many businesses have taken advantage of the chance to expand their operations.

  • Grains at the core of Chinese people’s meals

As you may have heard, the United States is the world's largest producer of maize, while Brazil is the largest producer of soybeans, owing to China's massive need. In reality, China is the world's largest importer of maize and soybeans, accounting for over half of total worldwide imports.

China’s Skyrocketing demand for Corn and corn powder

The price of maize has reached an all-time high this year - $7 per bushel - due to ballooning demand from China, and this situation is not about to end, as China's need for feed grains has been increasing quickly as its hog output recovers from African swine disease outbreaks.

Japan imported 3.29 billion US dollars of maize in 2020, followed by Mexico and China, which contributed for 2.49 billion US dollars. The United States exported over 13 billion US dollars worth of maize internationally in the previous year, accounting for more than a third of total corn exports globally.

According to USDA data, corn imports into China were up by almost 250% in 2020/21, meanwhile, those of wheat nearly doubled compared to a few years ago, as Chinese consumers are fond of chickens (the success of fried chicken, KFC, etc.) that contain breadcrumbs or coatings made with flour.

Soybeans market in China

China’s soybean imports reached an annual record in 2020, growing 13% from the previous year as prices and demand for pork increased.

The General Administration of Customs reported that 100.33 million tons were purchased this past year – up significantly from 88.51 million a few years ago- to meet demands by food processors and pig farmers alike who are willing to pay more but wait longer times if necessary since domestic production is down dramatically due to floodings that killed off much of their crops before they could be harvested.

Gro Intelligence)

In 2020, the total import value of soybeans in China amounted to approximately 39.5 billion U.S dollars – that’s up from around 35.3 billion US dollars last year.

China’s ever-growing population combined with improving living standards means that more people can afford to eat meat, thus increasing the demand for grains to feed animals.

What are Chinese consumers’ expectations when looking for imported products?

As previously said, people are mostly seeking for safe and healthy items. Foreign items are thought to be safer than domestic products. Quality comes in second, with 66 percent of Chinese buyers citing it as an essential purchase motivator. The reputation of the brand will impact the majority of consumers who buy imported food. As a result, boosting brand recognition is critical if you want to sell goods to China.

What are the most popular countries for imported products?

While the United States and France were the most popular countries in terms of imported brands and products in China, New Zealand is now paving the way thanks to its strict safety regulations, followed by Australia, Germany, the USA, and Japan.

Why is China a promising market for foreign food brands?

Taxes are decreasing

Since 2008, China has had volatile inflation rates, and in order to ease the strain on its residents' wallets, the government began lowering tariffs on imported food. Since then, China Customs has steadily reduced prices for frozen pig goods by 50%, pistachio imports with a tax fall of at least 57 percent in 2009 alone, and cod cans with a 53 percent increase. Because of the progressive drop, certain infant milk brands are now cheaper than local ones.

Chinese consumers are looking for new culinary experiences

Chinese are curious and willing to try new culinary experiences. With 53% of Chinese consumers enjoying trying new dishes, foreign brands have lots of opportunities to promote and attract consumers.

In China, Imported Food Products can serve as Gifts

Imported goods are so popular in China that they are often given as gifts. For example, "Mianzi" is an idiom that means "dignity or status," has deep roots in Chinese culture, and has a significant impact on many people's everyday lives. This phrase may be traced back to ancient times when it was used by officials as a form of exchange between them - depending on what kind of position they had, you either had more "face" or were able to offer others face.

Wine fair

Nowadays, it is common to present expensive or uncommon foreign items and beverages to friends and family, as well as on special occasions. One of the finest instances is when guests arrive at a party with well-known and costly foreign alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, wine, beer, and so on.

Another reason for this success is that imported food products in China are better packed. They’re hand-picked and carefully packaged by Western brands, who know that packaging is an important purchasing consideration for Chinese consumers. It’s also one of the reasons why these items make such thoughtful gifts. On special occasions like weddings or business meetings where people want to show their appreciation with a gift, imported foods will always be welcomed and appreciated.

What are the challenges when exporting food products in China?

Chinese customers are becoming increasingly interested in international items as their awareness and tastes grow. To be effective with your marketing plan, you will need to demonstrate honesty regarding the quality and safety of your product as a foreigner.

You will have to compete not just on product quality, but also on the packaging, marketing, advertising, localizing your brand and tailoring your brand to Chinese consumers' tastes, and so on. Remember that you will need to develop your brand recognition from the beginning because Chinese residents use their own social media sites such as WeChat, Weibo, Xiaohongshu, and so on, as well as their own e-commerce platforms.

Steps to exporting food products to China: How do I start

Chinese regulations & Government Guidelines: export food safety

China has adopted rigorous import rules throughout the years for a variety of reasons, including increased imports and sanitary problems, and is so rapidly embracing Western norms. Before you begin exporting to China, it is critical that you understand these requirements as well as the AQSIQ to ensure that all items fulfil quality standards before entering China.

  • Registering your company with the AQSIQ

First, AQSIQ is an abbreviation for The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine which grants approval for imports of a wide range of products. Moreover, it controls inspection quality and has great power in decision-making. As an exporter, you should be aware of its rules and regulations in terms of quality standards and certifications, before exporting your goods to China.

Your company is responsible for registering with the AQSIQ if your product falls under their “List of Food Imports Subject to Enterprise Registration.” You should also register any shipments you have, which can be done online. This will help track the shipment and make it easier for both importers and you.

  • AQSIQ’s certificate

China’s AQSIQ certificate is an important document that can help you avoid trouble and expensive situations with Chinese customs. For example, if a product needs to have this certification but doesn’t, it may be seized or demolished due to its potential health risks, You will need to contact the AQSIQ in order to obtain this certificate.

Example of an AQSIQ certificate

Fill out 17 pages of documentation (all in Mandarin Chinese) and submit it for examination to acquire your AQSIQ certificate. If you have not fulfilled all of the prerequisites once this procedure has been finished. Within 30 days, acceptance notification will be given. Otherwise, you will be sent a non-acceptance letter.

If you want to export your food items to China, the first application fee might range between USD 0 and 3800. The overall cost is determined by the sort of items you wish to export as well as if you are a member of AQSIQ or ISO 9001.

To avoid failures in completed inspections, it is critical that all criteria are accomplished ahead of time so that no further work is required afterwards. You can contact us and we will handle everything for you.

  • The need to have a pre-import license

Examples of pre-import licenses

If you wish to export dairy and meat products, you must first get an AIL (Automatic Import License). Additional procedures for pre-import approval may also apply to some specific commodities. That being said, I recommend speaking with a professional who can assist you in preparing all of the essential documentation in advance so that nothing surprises you while importing from outside. You can contact us for further information, and our professionals will walk you through the process.

  • Labeling your products

The General Rules of Pre-packaged Food Labeling is a document that specifies the items that must be included on import food product labels. It specifies what information must be placed on each package of any pre-packaged agricultural product imported into China, including the firm name (in both English and Chinese), address, operational licence number, and production date.

In order to comply with these regulations, it has become necessary for companies wishing to import their products to China to provide specific labeling information on all packaging materials before they are shipped. You will also need to provide the following information:

  • The name of the product: every word, image, brand, or description that is characteristic of the product

  • Ingredients: every substance and additive used in preparation for the final product

  • A detailed list is provided precisely to avoid any health hazards when consuming the product

  • Manufacturing date

  • Expiration Date

Do I need an export license to sell F&B goods in China?

An export license is necessary for a foreign trade company (FTC) to sell goods to China. In fact, it is a document that gathers information about who, what, and where you are exporting goods from. China uses this to control the legality of imported products on its soil.

Moreover, all importers and exporters of foreign F&B goods and cosmetics must register with the “Registration Systems for Imported Food and Cosmetic Importers/Exporters.”

To comply with China’s requirements and complete the registration process for import and export, a foreign exporter will have to prepare the following documents:

  • An inspection certificate issued by AQSIQ

  • Commercial invoice

  • A bill of lading

  • A detailed packaging list of your product

  • A certificate for export from your home country

  • Certificate of free sale

  • A hygiene certificate

  • Certificate of bottling date (for beverages)

  • Sample of the original label

  • Sample of Chinese label

Not that abiding by Chinese laws and remitting this file to the competent authority is necessary for customs clearance later on.

How can F&B professionals increase their sales & profits in China?

Understanding that you will need to adjust your strategy to Chinese consumers and behaviours is critical to fast-growing your brand in China. Remember that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are not available in China due to the Great Firewall. As a result, you'll need to set up an official account on Chinese social media. This is a vital component since you will be able to directly market your items as well as connect with your audience.

(© Global Times)

We have seen several food trade firms attempt to expand their sales in China using the same marketing strategy that they use at home, and the majority of them failed to meet their objectives until they began to localise. And believe me when I say that localization is essential whether you are considering direct selling or distribution.

Be as explicit and straightforward as possible while selling your items, whether in storefronts or on e-commerce platforms. You must persuade them that your items are worthwhile in a matter of seconds. If people have heard of your brand before, they will most likely want to test your stuff.

What are the main channels of distribution for food Product & brand in China?

Selling food products offline: The classic strategy

If you want to sell products using the classical way, you will probably want to engage an agent or sell them directly in supermarkets. You will have to convince them of the quality of your products and show that they will be profitable enough. You can also open your own store, but it is extremely expensive, and in general, only well-established brands decides to do so.

Selling Food Products Online through your own website

It is more difficult to sell things directly on its own website since you will have to handle everything (including the logistic). According to Chinese customers, purchasing straight from the brand's website was placed sixth. Because of the convenience and security of e-commerce platforms, brands on e-commerce platforms are subject to stringent quality and safety standards. As a result, Chinese customers will be more hesitant to purchase things through your website rather than well-established marketplaces.

Well-known firms, on the other hand, may still draw people to their websites due to their reputation.

Cross-Border E-Commerce platforms: The Best Way to Sell Imported products in China

E-Commerce platforms are very convenient for foreign companies. You can sell straight away without a physical presence in China, as long as you obtain approval from the relevant cross-border platforms.

With China’s huge online population of over 900 million netizens and 250 million e-shoppers, an online sales infrastructure is everything when entering the market.

Everything is convenient for both parties:

  • Consumers have access to a wide variety of foreign products, without the fear of the language barrier because the websites are optimized in Mandarin. Moreover, the delivery is as fast as for local products because the organization of e-commerce platforms is the same for both domestic and foreign companies. For example, JD.com takes care of the logistic, delivering customers just within a few hours.

  • For sellers, it allows you to sell your products in China safely and easily. By using a popular platform, you will be able to target a large audience, as well as develop your activity online, by linking your e-commerce shop to your social media accounts for example.

Foreign companies have the opportunity to target the right niche markets to market their products. Online sales continue to grow in popularity as consumers seek convenience and choice. It is estimated that 94 % of Chinese consumers have already purchased food online. Tmall is the preferred platform, but JD and Yihaodian are also very popular among Chinese consumers.

Tmall: The Leading E-Commerce Platform in China

Tmall Global is the worldwide counterpart of Tmall, China's largest online marketplace. As the most well-known and largest cross-border B2C platform, it provides international merchants with both wholesale (B2B) and retail (B2C) models. It has turned into a trustworthy platform for purchasing imported items from over 50 nations across the world, including Japan, Korea, the United States, and France.

Chocolate on Tmall.com

Tmall Global’s popularity is not surprising considering that the platform has more than 29,000 international brands and a large variety of products. It also operates in 87 countries, with its app being the 6th most used online store in China and 78% of customers using both Tmall Global and Tmall.com. For example, 80% of brands have used Tmall Global to enter the China market, with more than 5,800 product categories.

Lay’s on Tmall Global

Having a Tmall storefront is the most effective way to penetrate the Chinese market and export your products in China. However, the problem is that Tmall only accepts brands that already have a significant presence and have high sales in China. That’s why a lot of companies are rejected by the platform because of its high standards.