No “near-term nirvana” for venison in China

China will be a challenge for venison, but one that the deer industry is going into with its eyes open.

The news from the Prime Minister and Minister for Primary Industries that agreement had been made with the Chinese on chilled meat access for that market caught the meat industry, including the Ministry for Primary Industries, Meat Industry Association and others somewhat by surprise, according to Silver Fern Farms chief executive and Deer Industry NZ (DINZ) board member Dean Hamilton.

Speaking at the recent Deer Industry Conference in Dunedin last week, he had no doubt that the deer industry will get there eventually with chilled and that there are long-term benefits for New Zealand having access. However, as the meat industry is still working through plant accreditation for frozen, he felt it would be a “good twelve months” away for achieving plant accreditation for chilled production of mainstream lamb and beef, after which venison would follow.

He also noted that the meat industry doesn’t struggle currently to sell all of its chilled production, whether that is beef, lamb or venison.  “However, ultimately, having another market to tension off I think will be very positive.”

Having spent quite a lot of time in China looking at their supply chain and how the cool chain is managed from port to restaurant, Hamilton felt there is a lot of work to be done there before they can handle chilled product.

“So, it’s positive long-term but I don’t think it’s going to be ‘near-term nirvana’ across any of those products,” he said.

Recent research carried out on venison in China by Deer Industry New Zealand and the five venison exporters in the Passion2Profit programme has shown that the Chinese don’t like rare meat, noted Glenn Tyrell of Duncan NZ Ltd, another DINZ board member. This means that the high-cost venison products New Zealand typically sends to high-end restaurants in other markets are not going to be the most appropriate for the Chinese market at this stage.  He questioned whether chilled will offer any benefit to the different range of cuts required to meet Chinese consumer needs for the traditional slower types of braised cooking.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge on the venison side for that market,” he said.

Marianne Wilson, Deer Industry NZ venison marketing manager
Marianne Wilson, Deer Industry NZ venison marketing manager.

In her venison market presentation, DINZ venison marketing manager Marianne Wilson also explained that the research had unveiled the fact that Chinese consumers don’t particularly like venison either.

The meat has always been the by-product of the velvet trade in China and is seen as tough and strong tasting, she said. As there is also a reluctance to try meat when it is rare or medium-rare, the research suggests there is a need to come up with creative solutions.

“Attitudes will come around in time,” said Wilson. “In the meantime, we need to look at cuts suitable for sharing and eating with chopsticks.”

John Sadler of Mountain River Venison, an exporter that has been working on venison in China for the past five years, sees the challenges ahead as an opportunity for the industry. Mountain River is working with an in-market agent to find the right niche for its products in a market which, he believes, “has enormous potential”. His company is targeting restaurants in high-end hotels where he pointed to examples of main dishes selling anywhere from between 158-800 RMB (NZ$35-$180) a plate.

“Tastes are changing rapidly though,” he noted. One current food trend in China is around the environmental impact of the food being eaten, sparked by a number of food scandals.

“To get the value out of the market, you have to have the right product,” said Sadler. He cited venison shanks, a cut that is ideally suited to slow cooking.

The right attitude is also required. As a counterpoint to Dean Hamilton’s comments about the absence of a reliable cool chain in China, Sadler put up a slide showing his ‘cool chain’ making a delivery to the five-star Park Hyatt hotel — a high-tech chilly bin that can be wheeled along the footpath.

“Chefs have difficulty getting high quality product because of the lack of a good distribution system. So, if you can solve these problems, you have a step in the door,” he says.

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