China has imported more than 250,000 heifers in the past three years from Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay in an effort to supply the rising demand for dairy products in its burgeoning middle classes.
However, distrust in Chinese milk since the melamine scandal of 2008 means that imported dairy products are often more attractive to consumers, according to Karen McBride from Chinese firm Wondermilk that farms and processes milk outside Beijing.
Speaking at the Emerald Expo in Cillin Hill, Kilkenny, on Friday, the Northern Ireland native said growing Chinese demand for dairy products was an opportunity for Irish dairy exports.
Last year, China was the fourth largest consumer of drinking milk and the largest consumer of powdered milk in the world.
"The melamine crisis of 2008 is directing what is happening in China now," she maintained.
Around half of the country's milk processors have been closed since melamine-tainted milk killed six babies and hospitalised 300,000 people.
In 2010, the Chinese government reduced the minimum requirements for protein in milk in an effort to discourage falsification of protein tests and it is actively promoting large, 'safe' farm lots.
"The Chinese middle classes want high quality dairy products," she told the conference.
Ms McBride told the conference that Wondermilk promotes its milk on the basis that it has no hormones, additives or antibiotics and it commands a premium price in the market.
She said that the future developments in the Chinese dairy market would include a wider range of dairy products, including yoghurt, ice cream and cream.
She added that foreign investment would increase in China, but the government's aim was to become a global player in dairy.
"That is very significant, coming from a country that revolutionised the market for electrical and consumer goods," she said.
When asked about the potential for Irish dairy products, Ms McBride said Kerrygold could be found in supermarkets and the increasing 'westernisation' of Chinese diets could benefit Ireland.
"Pizza is on the increase and with it demand for cheese," she said.
"Given the quality of Irish product, with grass-fed cows, I believe there is opportunity there for Irish companies," she told the conference.
"The growing middle class in China aspires to the highest quality food."
- Caitriona Murphy
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