China's Entrepreneurs Target Gourmet Food Market
"Made in China" labels are all over plastic toys and consumer goods, but China's entrepreneurs are not content to stop there.
Armed with homegrown truffles, caviar and foie gras, the country's businessmen are taking aim at the world's gourmet food market -– with some success.
Hunting for Truffles
Truffles — much prized by connoisseurs — are a relatively new commodity in China. Around 20 years ago, the potato-shaped fungi were eaten only by wild animals, but times — and markets — have changed. Now, China is the world's top truffle supplier, producing more than France and Italy combined.
In Europe, trained animals have traditionally been used to sniff out the underground fungi, but in China, truffle-hunters trudge through forests in search of them.
Li Yongbin hunts for truffles five months out of the year.
"We don't use pigs or dogs," he says. "We just depend on our experience."
On a good day, Li says he can singlehandedly collect 40 pounds of truffles.
These homegrown truffles are relatively cheap – only a tenth or less of the cost of those from France, but according to those in the know, far inferior in taste.
But Wu Jianming, who exports a third of China's truffles, disagrees.
"There's no big difference in taste. The smell is slightly different, but the feel of the truffles in the mouth is the same," Wu says.
Wu plans to cultivate truffles, a move bound to ruffle European purists even further. He concedes that Europe's truffle markets are threatened by Chinese products, but insists that European suppliers must learn to adapt.
"In the past they had a monopoly and now they are threatened, so they are trying to undermine our product. Black French truffles used to be a status symbol. Now they're cheaper and more people can afford them. That has to be a good thing," Wu says.
Branching Out: Caviar and Foie Gras
Whether or not they are democratizing the gourmet food market, China's businessmen realize there are hefty profits in gastronomical delicacies.
The country boasts the largest collection of sturgeon species in the world, including breeds which are extinct in the wild. Last year, a sturgeon breeding farm in central China exported its first batch of caviar –1 about 1,000 pounds of it.
Now, Chinese businessmen are also tackling the final piece of the trinity of epicurean delights — foie gras, or fatty goose liver, made by force-feeding geese to enlarge their livers. China is now the world's third-largest foie gras producer, after France and Israel.
For Song Sinian, who breeds geese imported from France, this fact is a matter of pride. Most of his geese will end up as foie gras, and because Song works for a joint venture with a French company called Gourmaud, some will be exported back to France.
"I'm very proud that an ordinary Chinese farmer like myself can make a product that is sold to France," Song says.
A Growing Chorus of Opposition
At a farm run by Jing Songhe, a woman grabs each of the farm's half a million geese by the neck and sticks a foot-long iron pipe down their gullets so that corn can be fed directly into the bird's stomach. This procedure is repeated four times a day for the last three weeks of the goose's life.
Critics call the practice cruel, and outside China an anti-foie gras movement is gaining momentum. Chicago banned the sale of foie gras last year, and the delicacy is set to be outlawed in California in five years. The European Union has set a 15-year grace period to phase out the practice.
Jing, however, denies that force-feeding is especially cruel.
"It makes no difference whether you force-feed birds or kill them directly, the final result is the same," he says.
China has no regulations regarding force-feeding animals. In fact, the local government has a 10 percent stake in Jing's business, and he says he is not worried about the influence of animal rights' campaigners.
"Because they're opposing foie gras, their countries stop producing it. But the citizens of their countries still want to eat foie gras, so it can only mean my prospects are improving," Jing says.
Jing boasts that his product is tastier than French goose liver because force-feeding is done manually in China and not by machine, as it is overseas.
And with labor, feed and production costing just a fraction of what they would overseas, he believes China's set to be the world's top foie gras producer in five years.
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