Regaining access to China markets

Tainted food scandals have convinced Chinese buyers that imports are safer

Most North Americans use velvet antler as dried powder in capsules, for recovery from injury or exercise, to boost testosterone, and improve circulation.

Cervid (elk and other deer) products have been used and prized in China for at least 2,700 years. That makes China a very valuable marketplace for cervid products. Indeed, it was a good market until Canada and the U.S. took action to contain and eradicate BSE in early 2003. China immediately closed its markets to all products from ruminants — including cervids — as did most countries around the world.

The farmed cervid industry in Canada has struggled, worked and negotiated for 10 years to slowly and incrementally reopen those closed borders to our ruminant products. We’ve met with some success, such as protocols for moving antler to Hong Kong, Mongolia, Vietnam, Taiwan and a few others.

But China and Korea are the big prizes. Direct access to either or both would mean dramatically more competition amongst buyers and an increase in antler prices of at least 50 per cent.

The Canadian Cervid Alliance (CCA) has met with many government officials — from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Foreign Affairs, CFIA, embassy staff and more — but little progress was made until the minister of agriculture set up the Market Access Secretariat (MAS).

This group of carefully selected people had complete focus on regaining the agricultural markets lost after BSE — with emphasis on beef, of course. The successes started to mount up, with great co-operation between the MAS and industry. The cervid alliance met with MAS, and they took on the cause. They used the tools at their disposal for a time, then got back to the cervid producers and said, “OK, now it’s your turn. The way business works in Asia is on the basis of personal relationships — you need to go there and make friends and business partners.”

The cervid alliance directors were pleased and surprised when they were offered the opportunity to accompany Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and 70 other influential people from Canadian agriculture and agribusiness on a trade mission to China. The group was very diverse — including provincial ministers and deputy ministers of agriculture, the canola, beef, blueberry and pork sectors. The cervid alliance selected Connie Seutter from the Alberta Elk Commission, Harvey Petracek from the Saskatchewan Cervid Alliance, myself, Don Bamber from Royal Elk Products — Canada’s largest and most successful velvet antler processor, and Larry Kessler, a marketing agent from Montreal.

Our trade values are relatively small — about equal to cherries at $4 million per year, compared to $2.8 billion worth of canola products, or $240 million for beef. Beyond that, we were also not technically allowed to move our products directly into mainland China; it all goes to Hong Kong, then who knows where. Our goal is to establish protocol for all cervid products to go directly to any port and any buyer in China.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners prefer antler in slices for mixing with herbs and other nutraceuticals to treat many ailments and to balance the body’s yin and yang forces.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners prefer antler in slices for mixing with herbs and other nutraceuticals to treat many ailments and to balance the body’s yin and yang forces. photo: Ian Thorleifson

Our plan on the trade mission was to meet with government officials from the agencies that govern imports and treat them to gifts and dinners, plus meet with and exchange contact information with as many prospective buyers as possible. We did that quite successfully. Now we need to follow up, from both ends — with Chinese buyers requesting import permits from their government, and us nudging the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to not impede these trade opportunities. It seems odd that we need to worry about our own government denying us opportunities, but experience shows that has happened far too many times in the past.

Our secondary goal was to learn as much as possible about the current market for our products in China.

We noticed there has been a watershed change in consumer preferences based on food safety concerns. Twenty years ago, buyers wanted our products in a raw form, to allow them to capture the processing markups and to produce products in China that consumers were familiar with and accepted.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous processors added useless and even dangerous ingredients to what should have been healthy products, all to increase their profits. They have been exposed and punished, but the greater effect has been to convince Chinese consumers that imported products are safer than those processed in China.

The ones who can afford these imported goods — which is an increasingly large percentage of the population, want products that are sealed, labelled and processed in countries that enjoy good reputations for quality control and food safety — including Canada and the U.S. This is a huge opportunity for us to produce and process in North America, institute complete traceability systems to support our safety and quality claims, and market all we can produce in that manner.

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