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Olive Allure


China Daily

2006-01-16 07:27

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 The olive tree came to China hundreds of years ago via the warm climes of the Mediterranean, but the famous oil that figures so prominently in Italian cooking was still fairly new to most Chinese consumers up until a few years ago.

Times have changed, and an increasing number of Chinese shoppers are buying olive oil, which is generally healthier than most other cooking oils.

A number of brands are available in large supermarkets throughout China's first-tier cities. Carrefour in Beijing carries over 10 brands of olive oil, including both domestic brands and foreign names. Commercials have started airing on TV as well. It seems that the distinctive taste of olives has struck a chord with affluent Chinese consumers.

One Carrefour spokesperson says that new brands are constantly being introduced, with four to five new varieties hitting store shelves each year. He refuses to reveal sales figures, but says consumer interest in olive oil is definitely growing.

"Around 3,000 tonnes of olive oil were consumed in China in 2004," confirms Lin Yongqing, vice-president of the China Vegetable Oil Association, adding that China's olive oil market is still relatively small. Growth has been rapid, however.

"Last year the market was expected to increase by at least 50 per cent."

Lin attributes the huge consumption increase to growing awareness of the health benefits of olive oil. Rising individual incomes are also fuelling the product's popularity.

The International Olive Oil Council says China will become the world's largest consumer of olive oil within the next decade. The country's geographical environment is unsuitable for mass production, however. Lin says that over 90 per cent of the olive oil on the domestic market is imported from Western countries. This is why prices are much higher than other types of vegetable-based oil. Most olive oil retails for between 50 yuan (US$6.17) and 200 yuan (US$24.69) per 500 millilitres.

The rapidly expanding market is naturally attracting an increasing number of olive oil producers, including Chinese food industry leader China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corp (COFCO).

In November last year, Eastocean Oils & Grains Industries (Zhangjiagang) Co Ltd, a subsidiary of COFCO, formally launched its Soliva olive oil brand. Tao Changding, deputy manager of the company's marketing centre, says the brand's two varieties, extra virgin olive oil and pure olive oil, will first be sold in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other prosperous cities.

Tao says the goal is to make Soliva the "second oil" in households.

"We are not asking our customers to use olive oil whenever they cook," Tao says. "We want them to use it on special occasions for romantic moments or family reunions, for example."

Tao says it took the company four years to prepare the new product for the market, adding that it was an important step towards entering the high-end edible oil market. He says sales in China's high-end cooking oil market reached 300 million yuan (US$37 million) last year, and olive oil accounted for 90 per cent.

Zhang Dongfeng, assistant president of COFCO, says there are currently over 50 olive oil brands available in China.

"It's a bit messy at the moment," says Zhang. "We want to be the first to educate and regulate the market."

He adds that the sector is characterized by huge price differences between different products, and consumer awareness is still relatively low.

Zhang says it will take another five years to cultivate the market, and COFCO will direct approximately 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) per year into promotions.


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