China’s dairy market and the future potential for imports

Growth in China as a market for dairy products is good news, first for Chinese consumers and secondly for dairy producers throughout the world.

China’s dairy market and the future potential for imports

China was a significant importer of milk powder, accounting for 20 percent of the total global trading volume in 2013, importing more than 850,000 metric tonnes. However, as many dairy producers know, China drastically cut their milk powder buying in 2014, leading to a decrease in the world price of milk. Many have asked why. 

It is likely that a combination of factors account for China’s withdrawal from the milk powder market. One is decreased need because so much was purchased that sufficient powder was in storage. This would be a temporary situation of imbalance between supply and demand. In addition, there are questions about weakness in the Chinese economy that may have reduced demand. 

A lack of transparency by China’s government means that we will probably not understand what is happening with its economy. Perhaps the more important question is in regard to the future. Will China import large amounts of dairy products again? 

We can’t accurately predict what will happen, but here are factors that may provide insight.

  • Chinese dietary habits have changed. An article published by Mintel indicated that in 2014, China replaced the U.S. as the top market for ice cream. Fluid milk is primarily sold in single use packages and is UHT processed and flavored. Pizza is becoming more popular. 
  • In general, parents desire that their children consume dairy products for greater health and growth. 
  • The one-child policy that had been in effect, and aggressively enforced, for more than three decades, was changed at the end of October 2015. According to China Daily roughly more than 90 million couples will be eligible to have a second child, it is uncertain how many will register to do so. However, the reason for the policy change was to increase the number of young people in China. 

A representative from Yili, one of the major dairy companies in China, reported that they have over 1,000 dairy products on the market, accounting for different volumes, flavors and fat levels. This is obviously a significant investment in product development, and yet, maybe it indicates that they are trying many products just to find out what sells. 

While in China in October 2015, I found drinkable yogurt was the most commonly available product in the Inner Mongolian city of Hohhot. In Beijing, I saw several fluid dairy products in a small market, one on a cold shelf, another on a hot shelf. In the Hohhot airport, huge wall ads advertised dairy products including ice cream and milk. These attractive ads featured children, a young woman and NBA basketball. 

It appears that demand for dairy in China is likely to increase. One question is whether it will increase at a rate that is faster than the ability of the country to produce milk, thereby, increasing imports. Milk production within China is currently increasing at an annual rate of three to six percent. Given the potential growth of the market for dairy products in the country, it appears that there will be future increases in dairy imports. 

However, there may be bumps in the road to increased imports as Chinese companies struggle to understand what the changes in the economy mean to their markets. Long-term, dairy producers in New Zealand and Australia are likely to gain the greatest benefit of that market, but it should have a positive impact on world dairy prices.

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