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Ready-to-cook Chinese cuisine big hit in Canada

By ZHU WENQIAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2023-03-22 07:34
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Employees present frozen premade meals in Foshan, Guangdong province, in January. [PHOTO/ CHINA DAILY]

Guangdong firm aims for dishes to be as common overseas as pizza

Quick-frozen, semicooked Chinese food has been gaining momentum domestically since the COVID-19 pandemic, and is expected to appear more often overseas as supermarkets and restaurants in Canada cater to a growing demand for authentic Chinese food.

Guangdong province held a ready-to-cook meal development forum in Toronto in early February, and a large number of dignitaries and celebrities attended the forum, organizers said. During the event, the Guangdong Prepared Cuisine Industry Development Center of North America was established.

Representatives from major Canadian Asian supermarkets and Chinese food takeout and delivery companies attended the forum. Speaking at the forum, they expressed a willingness to introduce more ready-to-cook meals from China as they look to further expand sales, organizers said.

Frozen dishes require only simple reheating and thanks to advanced cold-chain transportation, they can be delivered with extended quality guarantee times. Sales of such meals, including meats, seafood, vegetables and hot pot, have been growing rapidly.

"Amidst a range of global challenges, having conversations about food industries, products and supplies is more important than ever before," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in a letter to the forum. "The occasion was an opportunity to recognize the immense contributions that Asian Canadians have made and continue to make every day to our shared nation."

Guangdong Evergreen Group, a private company involved in businesses such as feed production, aquaculture, aquatic products processing and foreign trade, attended the Toronto forum. The company said the Canadian government's support for Guangdong ready-to-cook meals has further boosted its confidence in developing such products.

The company has already sold some frozen meals at Canadian supermarkets. They include fish and fotiaoqiang, a traditional thick soup made of a variety of seafood, as well as meat and braised sea cucumber. Such ready-to-cook meals are produced in centralized kitchens and quick-frozen.

Evergreen said it is developing more types of quick-frozen foods, and it hopes to provide more options to Chinese who live overseas as well as non-Chinese consumers. The company hopes that these consumers will begin to turn to pre-prepared dishes as easily as they do to frozen pizza.

During the event, some ready-to-cook dishes were prepared for the guests. They included roast fish, sauerkraut fish, crayfish, shrimp slip, pomfret, bass, shrimp dumplings and steamed pork dumplings.

"Prepared dishes satisfy the demand of the times, and it has been an emerging sector with significant growth potential. I hope Guangdong's ready-to-cook meal sector will expand in Canada and more overseas Chinese residents and Canadians will have a chance to taste delicious Chinese food," said Li Tong, Chinese commercial consul in Toronto.

"The ready-to-cook meal business segment is also expected to drive the upstream and downstream development of local industrial chains, and further promote economic and trade exchanges and practical cooperation between China and Canada," Li said.

Workers prepare ready-to-cook products at a food company's factory in Foshan in January. [PHOTO/CHINA DAILY]

Marc Kealey, a former aide to late Canadian prime minister John Turner, has visited China multiple times and has a good understanding of Cantonese culture. He likes Guangdong's idea to further develop frozen meals in Canada, and said he hopes that more high-quality Chinese products such as ready-to-cook meals will become familiar to Canadians, news website Zaker reported.

Industry officials said at the forum that Cantonese culture has a significant influence in Canada. Toronto has some of the best Cantonese cuisine in North America, and many people from that culture live in Toronto.

Investments are being made in upstream products of the ready-to-cook meal sector, and investors said they think more chain stores and supermarkets in Canada will purchase quick-frozen meals prepared in Guangdong.

In China, ready-to-cook meals, including cooked food and pre-prepared ingredients, have become increasingly popular since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, given that only minimum preparation is involved. They are convenient for stay-at-home consumers, and especially appeal to young people.

On Feb 13, the State Council, China's Cabinet, released a guideline about promoting rural revitalization, and called for thorough implementation of digitalization and commercialization of agriculture. The document encouraged direct e-commerce procurement of agricultural products and the establishment of more livestreaming centers for agricultural products and by-products.

The guideline also called for the raising of standards and specifications for prepackaged vegetables and central kitchens, and further cultivation of the ready-to-cook meal sector. As an emerging industry, ready-to-cook meals were mentioned in an official government document for the first time.

"With the support of favorable policies, more companies are expected to join the ready-to-cook meal sector. Chain catering enterprises are likely to establish more central kitchens and centralized procurement distribution centers," said Liu Rui, a food and nutrition researcher at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

"Some ready-to-cook meal processing enterprises that make certain products have advantages in raw materials, quality control and production techniques. They are expected to achieve better growth," Liu said.

Since last year, Guangdong, Sichuan, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and Shanghai have issued policy guidance and standards regarding the sector. Those guidelines involve raw materials, processing, distribution, packaging and technical terms, helping to fill the gaps in a number of industry norms.

The quick-frozen meal business in China is still at an early stage of development and has a lot of room for long-term expansion. By 2031, annual sales of China's ready-to-cook meal market are forecasted to exceed 1 trillion yuan ($145.5 billion), growing some 60 percent from 634.1 billion yuan in 2026, according to a CITIC Securities research report.

There are some 64,000 companies involved in the quick-frozen meal business in China, and major companies have participated in multiple rounds of financing. The top three provinces in terms of related enterprises are Shandong with 7,700, Henan with 5,900 and Jiangsu with 5,500 enterprises, according to Qichacha, a company that tracks business registrations.

"The buying mindset and behavior of young consumers show that convenient, ready-to-cook meals are expected to become a more prominent trend in the future and fuel more types of businesses," said Zhu Danpeng, a food and beverage analyst based in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong.

While experiencing rapid growth, the distribution of the ready-to-cook meals sector is still highly scattered in China, and the quality of different products varies. The business looks to have significant room for growth, Zhu added.

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