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China’s Raw Lettuce Revolution

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China may be the world’s biggest lettuce producer, but the concept of tucking into a bowl of crispy green leaves is still somewhat of a novelty for Chinese consumers, who are used to eating their lettuce cooked rather than raw. However, the rapid expansion of Western-style restaurants across the country is starting to change this. Raw lettuce is also gaining a reputation as a weight management aid. The biggest hurdle for fresh produce players to overcome is widespread consumer distrust where food safety is concerned – this plays an even bigger role for raw lettuce than it does for other types of vegetables. However, this also presents a prime opportunity for fresh produce players to create branded offerings leveraging messages such as “pesticide-free”.

China responsible for over half of global lettuce production

Lettuce is not new to China. Some sources suggest that it has been cultivated since at least the seventh century. Nor does China produce negligible quantities. According to the latest (2012) data available from the FAOSTAT, China is responsible for 56% of global lettuce production and it cultivates five and a half times as much as the US.

Just over 14 million tonnes of lettuce were harvested in China in 2012, a 36% increase over a decade. The southern provinces of Hainan and Yunnan are the key production hubs, but lettuce is grown all across China, including in the far northern parts of the country in greenhouses, ensuring year-round availability.

Traditional Chinese cuisine treats lettuce as it does most other vegetables; lettuce is steamed, stir fried and made into soups. Popular dishes include sliced pork stir fried with lettuce and lettuce and fermented bean cake.

As a symbol for wealth and good luck the cultural perception of lettuce in China is resoundingly positive. Lettuce constitutes a firm component of the festive food line-up, including on birthdays and to celebrate in the Chinese New Year.

Eating lettuce Western-style for weight loss

The advent of Western foodservice establishments in the 1980s introduced the concept that lettuce could be eaten raw. For the first time, Chinese consumers were presented with raw lettuce in the form of uncooked leaves wedged into burgers, as a mixed salad accompanying lasagne or a consumable garnish perched on their prime rib steak, not to mention its obligatory presence in every Western-style salad bar.

Our consumer foodservice data show that value sales garnered by European full-service restaurants grew by 150% between 2009 and 2014, while North American full-service restaurants achieved an impressive 82% increase. Western-style dining clearly continues to be en-vogue, and this should help propagate raw salad culture further.

Unsurprisingly, it is predominantly the more affluent younger generation of Chinese consumers dwelling in first (and increasingly second) tier cities, which is embracing the salad habit.

A particular trend fuelling raw salad uptake is growing weight consciousness among young white collar workers, who purchase packaged fresh lettuce from high-end supermarkets and hypermarkets in order to replace some of the more energy-dense components of their daily meals fur bulky, naturally very-low calorie crunchy leaves.

New leaves find an audience

According to industry sources, the main varieties of lettuce currently consumed in China are iceberg, Chinese leaf, romaine, red leaf, red oak, Indian and Egyptian lettuce.

Propelled by the growing uptake of raw salad, new-to-China varieties of leaf vegetables suitable for raw consumption are finding their way into the country all the time. Chicory is a good example. Hebei Lianxing Jia Yao Agricultural Science and Technology is one of just a handful of companies dedicated to the production of chicory in China.

Founded only very recently in June 2015, it imports seeds from France and the Netherlands, providing technical support to farmers in Northern China to grow the plants in open fields, to be purchased back and “finished off” in the company’s own greenhouses. This involved process of foreign sourcing and two-phase cultivation results in a fairly pricy CNY40 (US$6) per 500g of product, which is why the company currently limits itself to supplying a select customer base composed of high-class restaurants and top-end supermarkets.

The food safety issue

It is also worth mentioning that the chicory produced by Hebei Lianxing Jia Yao Agricultural Science and Technology is organic, and this could well be an important factor in the continued success of raw salad vegetables in general in China.

Besides the fact that Chinese consumers tend to prefer all three of their main meals to be cooked simply because that is what they are traditionally used to, cooking is also widely believed to make food less “dangerous”. This is true, of course, where food-borne pathogens are concerned, since cooking kills off bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter.

However, there is also the common perception in China that high temperatures somehow render pesticides and other agrichemicals less harmful to health.

Food safety is a touchy subject in China. Consumer confidence in the safety of the country’s food supply is notoriously low and sadly, it has to be said, for good reasons. Therefore, organic produce, which is, by definition, pesticide-free, would lend itself very well for marketing as ideal for fresh salads.

An opportunity for branded products

At present, the overwhelming majority of Chinese consumers purchase whole heads of lettuce, with raw lettuce predominantly consumed by younger middle class consumers in the large cities. Ready-to-eat bagged lettuce and prepared salads, such as Chiquita Italian Salad Kit (by Zhejiang Chiquita Food Co Ltd) consisting of fresh cut up lettuce, cherry tomatoes and Italian herb dressing available in select hypermarkets for around CNY16 (US$2.40) per 200g pack, are still very much a niche offering.

Demand for more variety and more convenient offerings, however, is growing. A simple tossed salad is probably one of the easiest – and quickest – types of “exotic” Western foods for Chinese consumers to recreate at home. Perfect for weight management, with no cooking required and endowed with the all-important-convenience factor, this comparatively novel way of consuming an old favourite has serious potential in the Chinese fresh produce market.

Gaining consumer trust will be of paramount importance for growing this budding market, and, therefore, salad lettuce, be it in the form of whole heads or chopped and packaged into bags, is an ideal area for fresh produce players to establish new branded products, including, of course, organic offerings. In terms of marketing, companies ought to focus on aspects like the healthfulness and purity of their products, and the strict quality control measures employed in producing them.

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