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China’s imports of U.S. food on the rise

June 1, 2023
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: The demand for imported food is expected to keep growing among Chinese consumers, broadening the market for Wisconsin suppliers.

More and more food from the U.S. is showing up on dinner tables in China.

The value of U.S. agricultural and food products exported to China in 2022 reached a record $40.9 billion, a 14.5% increase over the previous year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Foreign Agricultural Service says.

China is the largest importer of U.S. food products for the third year in a row, topping Canada with $33.3 billion, Mexico with $29.6 billion, and Japan with $16.2 billion, according to the agency’s report, released in February 2023.

The news is particularly encouraging because it follows a “significant effort to rebuild the market for U.S. agriculture” since 2018 when a trade war ensued between the U.S. and China and exports fell to $13.2 billion, the report says.

Bulk products such as soybeans and corn topped the list of U.S. exports to China in 2022. Sales of meat and dairy products were also strong. U.S. producers sold $2.2 billion worth of beef, $1.1 billion in poultry, and $801 million worth of dairy products—all record values—to Chinese buyers.

One of the biggest growth areas for U.S. food and agricultural products was dog and cat food. Pet food sales to China more than tripled, from $72.3 million in 2021 to $264.1 million in 2022, the report says.

According to the USDA, China customs data showed the country’s total agricultural and food imports amounted to $261.4 billion in 2022. Although U.S. exports rose significantly, the U.S. ranked second, behind Brazil. New Zealand, Thailand, and Indonesia rounded out the top five sources of food imports to China.

China has been a net importer of food products since 2004, according to the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. In a January 2023 report, the council said China imports more soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and dairy products than any other country. The council expects China’s dependence on imported food products will grow in the coming years, as the amount of land that can be used for agriculture continues to decline.

A main factor is the demand by China’s growing middle class for more sophisticated foods that are safer, higher-quality, and more diverse. The Chinese government enacted tougher food safety standards in 2022, the council said, but lax regulations in the past have made consumers more interested in food grown in other countries. Also, imports are often less expensive because of production efficiencies in those countries.

Wisconsin food and agricultural product suppliers are encouraged to consider safety, health, and nutrition when they consider which products to promote to consumers in China.

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