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Italian products in the Chinese food & beverage market (Part 1)

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

Source: Retrieved from

In recent years, the Chinese market for imported food and beverage products has grown rapidly. According to data from the General Administration of Customs of China, the value of China's imports of food and beverage products increased from $24.8 billion in 2015 to $58.5 billion in 2020 (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2021). More specifically, as mentioned by the Italian Trade Agency, which has actively promoted Italian cuisine and helped to increase awareness of and interest in Italian food among Chinese consumers, the value of Italian food products exported to China Mainland in 2021 was around $27.65 billion (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2021). This growth is driven by several factors, including the increasing purchasing power of Chinese consumers, the growing interest in foreign food and beverage products, and the Chinese government’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to increase trade and investment between China and other countries. Mediterranean cuisine, including Italian cuisine, is a significant part of this market.

The popularity of Italian food has grown in recent years, with more and more Italian restaurants opening in Chinese cities and more Chinese consumers becoming familiar with Italian flavours and ingredients (Fratelli Pagani, 2022). Chinese people are attracted to Italian food for several reasons: Italian food is considered to be exotic and different from traditional Chinese cuisine, which makes it appealing to Chinese consumers who are looking for new and exciting culinary experiences. Italian cuisine is often considered as a healthy option due to its association with the Mediterranean diet. This cuisine emphasises the use of fresh ingredients and a minimal amount of processed foods, which promotes healthy eating habits. This is appealing to Chinese consumers who are becoming increasingly health conscious. The popularity of Italian cuisine in China is also driven by the influence of Western culture and the adoption of Western-style diets.

Pasta is a food made from semolina or flour of various origins, dried or used fresh and cut into various shapes. Pasta is synonymous with tradition and simplicity and represents an essential element of the Italian diet. Italians continue to be the main buyers of this product (about 23.5 kg per capita consumed in a year) (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2010). Despite this, there is no shortage of data from foreign countries that confirms the absolute importance of the product in the daily diet. Pasta has once again become one of the absolute protagonists of national agri-food exports, which reached a record figure of 46.1 billion euros in the last year (MatchPlat, 2021). The recent boom in pasta exports is most likely based on a lifestyle change that has involved people from all over the world: more time spent at home and the consequent rediscovery of cooking and moments such as preparing lunch and dinner. The increasingly consistent presence of Italian products on foreign tables also testifies to growing attention to quality, but also the possibility for the agri-food sector to drive the recovery of the country in the coming months. Pasta is a suitable, valid product, capable of winning the favour of a truly global market populated by increasingly attentive consumers. In 2020, exports increased by 16% compared to the previous year. The most passionate consumers of Italian pasta are German, French, English, American and Japanese. However, the export of Italian pasta in China recorded strong growth: between 2000 and 2009, pasta exports to China more than quadrupled (+339%) and exceeded 3 million kilos per year (Il Sole 24 Ore, 2010).

“Eating better” has become a recent trend among Chinese people who live in cities. Traditionally, Chinese people are used to using soybean and rapeseed oil while cooking, but the idea of creating a healthy lifestyle has dramatically influenced their lifestyle, which is directly connected with the adoption of some foreign products like olive oil, which was traditionally a product of the Mediterranean area. In addition, Mediterranean products are becoming more and more popular in China as the “Belt and Road” initiative continues to go underway. While the consumption of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) in China is currently low compared to other types of oil, its popularity is rising, as a result, there is a growing demand for new suppliers to meet the increasing demand for EVOO in China (Daxue Consulting, 2020). Of all the world-class olive oil producers, Italy is best placed to meet that demand, with Tunisia and Spain being two potential candidates. This increase in European olive oil exports to China is reflected in a 4.1% annual increase between 2019 and 2020 (Daxue Consulting, 2020). Recent years have seen a growing number of Italian restaurants appearing in top-tier cities.

It is no surprise that Italian olive oil producers are looking for new opportunities in the restaurant industry in China, as the number of sales of Italian products to China increased by 18% in 2020, indicating the rising interest of Chinese consumers in Italian food. Olive oil exports have presented the highest growth rate of 41% among Italian products in China, according to the European Food Agency (Dawson, 2018). In addition to the fact that Chinese customers value high-quality products, this expansion may be partially explained by the rise in popularity of Italian cuisine brought on by the “EU-China Tourism Year” and the promotion of the “year of Italian Food in the globe”. Other companies, such as Colavita (乐家), Farchioni (福奇), and Filippo Berio (翡丽百瑞), sell Italian olive oil in China in addition to Olivoilà, the market leader in this category. The relative success of Italian products in the olive oil market in China is demonstrated by the fact that some Chinese firms even copy the packaging of Olivoilà on their products (Dawson, 2018).

Another “Made in Italy” product that is often exported is cheese. Although cheese is not an integral part of Chinese culture, the requests for this food are rapidly increasing thanks to the rise in disposable income, new food trends and the new opening to international tastes. As a food far from Chinese culinary tradition, the country’s cheese production is small. As a result, the market is dominated by international companies (Cuccoli, 2021). Since 2016, imports of this food from Italy have steadily increased. This was the case even in 2020, when, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, exportations reached 4238 tons. Furthermore, at the beginning of 2021, imports from Italy increased by 71.60% compared to the same period of the previous year. Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the most exported cheeses in China (Affari Italiani, 2022). However, it is only found on the tables of the rich or at major events, and is not widespread in the daily diet. Nicola Bertinelli, CEO of the farm that produces Parmigiano Reggiano, said that to penetrate the Chinese market and reach a greater number of people, the product could be used as an alternative to a food supplement (Affari Italiani, 2022).

There is a large osteoporosis problem in China, so it may be possible to replace a small pill of calcium supplement with a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano. Grana Padano is another famous cheese, the origins of which date back to the Middle Ages and thus best represents Italian history and tradition. The “Made in Italy” dairy speciality is increasingly popular in the Asian country. Furthermore, the Grana Padano Consortium received in 2013 the “Premio Eccellenza Italia'' for the product, which is awarded to companies that represent cases of excellence in the Chinese market (Italia a Tavola, 2014). In particular, one of the biggest fans of Grana Padano in China is Fu Yang, a famous Chinese chef, who hosted a seminar on Italian DOP cheese, introducing Grana Padano to the Chinese public and illustrating some special recipes made with this cheese.

Italy is highly recognised for its food items, notably processed meat products, which may include sausages of various types and cured meat. According to data from Carni Sostenibili, the Italian meat industry has an annual economic value of around 30 billion euros, compared to the food sector’s 180 billion euros and the country’s overall GDP of 1,500 billion euros (Carni Sostenibili, 2018). Because they are made with a variety of high-quality ingredients, such as salts, herbs, and Italian spices, Italian sausages are a treat for meat lovers. Demand for this form of sausage is also rising fast, especially in the EU and the Asia-Pacific region. According to Statista figures cited by TUTTOFOOD for the semester of January to June 2022, exports increased to 95,006 tons (+4.1%), with revenue totalling 925.6 million euros (+9.5%). (Statista, 2022). The most well-liked goods are salami and cured ham. French imports have increased by 9.8%, Swedish by 17.1%, and Polish by 36.9% (Statista, 2022). This result was possible after years of negotiation with the Chinese government: cooked ham, mortadella, cotechini, and other heat-treated cured meats will be allowed to enter the Chinese market following ten years of discussions. This is a selective opening: only a select few Italian companies are authorised to sell prepared cured meats made from pigs born, grown, and slain within the Peninsula’s limits in China. Agricola Tre Valli, Leoncini, Felsineo, Brianza Salumi, and Lusetti Salumi are the permitted businesses (Great Italian Food Trade, 2013).

Those analysed are just some of the main products that are mostly exported from Italy to China. Without a doubt, however, the most important is wine, which we will discuss in the next article.

About the Authors

Federica Braccagni is a master’s student in Law and Economics of International Exchanges. She holds a Double Degree in Chinese for Business and Trade from the Capital Normal University (Beijing) and Ca’ Foscari University (Venice). She has always been passionate about languages, law, and international relations. She has collaborated with《紫竹留声》Magazine, for the promotion of the Chinese language and culture.

You can find her here on Linkedin:

Giulia Busnardo is an Italian sinologist, passionate about oriental languages and cultures, who graduated from both Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and Capital Normal University in Beijing. After winning the 2022 America Youth Award and the 2022 CNU Best Alumni Award, she is currently pursuing a master’s degree programme in the Chinese Language at Ca’ Foscari University. In addition, she collaborates with several periodicals and blogs, including 紫竹留声报纸 (Zǐzhú liú shēng bàozhǐ), based in Beijing, and European Guanxi. She has a very strong positive attitude and she’s always open to new challenges and opportunities not only to grow professionally but also personally.

You can find her here on Linkedin:竺明玉-753041245

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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