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Growing Australia’s apple export trade to China

Export & Market Access

Australia has a competitive advantage when it comes to exporting apples to China, given consumer preferences and the success of other imported branded fruit products in China. 

As APAL’s Head of Trade, I was invited to speak at the Australian Embassy’s Women in Agriculture event in Beijing in February. The event was hosted by the Australian Department of Agriculture and was an opportunity to engage with women from a broad range of backgrounds, representing a variety of industries across the agriculture sector in China. The event had numerous senior officials in attendance, including His Excellency Mr Scott Dewar, Australian Ambassador to China, and Deb Langford, Minister Counsellor (Agriculture). 

The opportunity to travel to China enabled me to capture high-level insights from the market and consider how Australian apples might grow our export trade into the future. Throughout the visit I visited several wholesale markets and fruit associations where I interviewed several prominent commercial stakeholders. The reflections from these meetings are captured below and will hopefully inspire Australian apple growers to consider Australia’s competitive advantage and what might be possible within this market environment. 

(left to right) Deb Langford, Minister Counsellor (Agriculture), Jenny Van de Meeberg, APAL Head of Trade, Matilda Ho, Founder and Managing Director of Bits x Bites, and His Excellency Mr Scott Dewar, Australian Ambassador to China.

Facts at a glance 

  • Production: China is the largest producer of apples in the world.  
  • Varieties: China cultivates a wide range of apple varieties, including Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Granny Smith.  
  • Consumption: With its large population, China is also one of the largest consumers of apples. The fruit is a staple in Chinese diets and is consumed fresh, as well as used in cooking, baking and making juices. 
  • Imports: While China is a major producer of apples, it also imports apples to meet domestic demand. In 2023, it imported almost 85,000 tonnes of apples. Major apple-producing countries that China imports from include the United States, New Zealand and Chile.  
  • Exports: China also exports apples, with Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam being some of the key export destinations. In 2023, China exported 1,271 tonnes of apples to Australia. 

Chinese consumer preferences for fruit 

  • Sweetness: Chinese consumers generally prefer fruit that are naturally sweet.  
  • Texture: Texture plays a significant role in fruit preferences. Crisp and crunchy fruit such as apples and pears are favoured, as are fruit with a smooth and creamy texture like bananas and avocados. 
  • Colour and appearance: Brightly coloured fruit with an attractive appearance are often preferred. For example, red-coloured fruit like strawberries, cherries and watermelons are popular choices, especially during festive occasions. 
  • Nutritional value: Health-conscious consumers prioritise fruit that are perceived to have high nutritional value and health benefits. Fruit like kiwifruit, blueberries and dragon fruit are popular choices among this demographic. 
  • Convenience: With the increasing pace of life in urban areas, convenience is becoming a more important factor in fruit consumption. Pre-cut and packaged fruit, as well as seedless varieties, are gaining popularity among busy urban consumers. 

Why do Chinese consumers buy imported fruit? 

  • Perceived quality and safety: Imported fruit are often perceived to be of higher quality and safer than domestically grown fruit. This perception is especially prevalent for fruit from countries with strict agricultural standards and regulations, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and certain European countries. Consumers may trust imported fruit more due to concerns about pesticide use, food safety incidents, or pollution in domestic agriculture. 
  • Variety and exclusivity: Imported fruit offer Chinese consumers access to a wider variety of fruit options that may not be readily available domestically. Many imported fruit are considered exotic or premium, and their availability can create a sense of exclusivity and novelty. Consumers may be willing to pay a premium for imported fruit to enjoy new flavours and experiences. 
  • Health benefits and nutritional value: Some imported fruit are perceived to have superior nutritional profiles and health benefits compared to domestic fruit.  
  • Status and prestige: Imported fruit are often associated with status and prestige, particularly among China’s growing middle and upper classes. Purchasing and consuming imported fruit can be seen as a symbol of wealth, sophistication and cosmopolitanism. Some consumers may buy imported fruit to impress others or as gifts for special occasions. 
  • Marketing and branding: Effective marketing and branding strategies by foreign fruit producers and exporters can influence Chinese consumers’ perceptions and purchasing decisions. Brands that emphasise quality, freshness and safety in their marketing campaigns can attract Chinese consumers looking for trustworthy fruit options. 

Which branded fruit products have been successful in China?

  • Dole®: Dole is a well-known global brand in the fruit industry and has made significant inroads into the Chinese market. It offers a wide range of fruit, including bananas, pineapples and various types of berries. 
  • Zespri™: Zespri is a New Zealand-based company known for its high-quality kiwifruit, particularly the SunGold™ variety. It has successfully established a presence in China, leveraging its reputation for premium fruit and engaging in targeted marketing efforts. 
  • Chilean cherries: While not a specific brand, cherries from Chile have become highly popular in China, particularly during the Chinese New Year period. Chilean cherry exporters have capitalised on this demand by ensuring high-quality fruit and effective marketing. 
  • California grapes: California grapes have gained recognition in China for their quality and taste. The California Table Grape Commission has undertaken promotional activities to increase awareness and consumption of California grapes in the Chinese market. 

Imported fruit in beautiful packaging is often bought as gifts for special occasions and during the many festivals held in China. Photo: Chen Yang 1912, Unsplash

What is the future of apples sales in China?

  • Premiumisation and diversification: As disposable incomes rise and consumer preferences evolve, there is a growing demand for premium and exotic apple varieties in China. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for high-quality apples with unique flavours, textures and appearances. This trend could drive the diversification of apple varieties available in the Chinese market and create opportunities for growers and exporters of premium apple varieties. 
  • Health and wellness: With a growing emphasis on health and wellness, consumers are seeking out fruit perceived to have nutritional benefits and health-promoting properties. Apples are already widely recognised for their health benefits, including their high fibre content and antioxidant properties. Market players may capitalise on this trend by promoting the health benefits of apples and developing value-added apple products, such as fresh-cut apple slices or apple-based snacks. 
  • E-commerce and digitisation: The rise of e-commerce platforms and digitisation is transforming the way apples are marketed, distributed and sold in China. Online retail channels offer greater convenience and accessibility for consumers, particularly those in urban areas. Apple growers and marketers may increasingly leverage e-commerce platforms to reach a wider audience, improve supply chain efficiency and engage with consumers through targeted marketing campaigns. 
  • Sustainability and traceability: With growing awareness of environmental and food safety issues, consumers are placing greater importance on sustainability and product traceability. Apple producers and exporters may need to adopt sustainable farming practices, reduce their environmental footprint and implement traceability systems to assure consumers of the quality and safety of their products. Transparency and authenticity could become key differentiators in the competitive apple market. 

There are many opportunities for Australian apple sales in China due to new trends in premiumisation, health and wellness, e-commerce, and sustainability and traceability.

 

This article was first published in the Autumn 2024 edition of AFG.

 

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