Q&A: Alibaba puts US pork online in China

by Erica Shaffer
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Consumers in China increasingly are turning to the Internet for purchases of fresh foods, including meat. Enter the Denver-based US Meat Export Federation (USMEF), which is charged with increasing the value and profitability of the US meat industry by growing demand abroad. USMEF recently leveraged a well-established partnership with Hangzhou, China-based Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., to sell US pork products online.

US exports of pork to China have surged in recent months: USMEF reported that March exports to the China/Hong Kong region surged 80 percent above year-ago levels to 50,695 metric tons. For the first quarter, exports of US pork to China/Hong Kong advanced 83 percent in volume (124,231 mt.) and 54 percent in value ($233.7 million).

MEAT+POULTRY caught up with Joel Haggard, USMEF senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region, who discussed how the Federation is using its partnership with Alibaba to get more US pork to Chinese consumers. Not an easy task considering imports from all pork suppliers to China have reached record levels this year.

MEAT+POULTRY: How and when did USMEF's partnership with Alibaba come about?

Joel Haggard, US Meat Export Federation
Joel Haggard, USMEF senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region

Joel Haggard: The relationship developed at the time several years ago when Alibaba was extending its offerings of fresh food and perishables, including meat. USMEF began working with vendors on specific consumer-ready, portion-controlled products that could be offered online to consumers.

M+P: Why does selling US pork online make sense to USMEF? How does it compare to selling pork in retail locations?

Haggard: Online retail is growing rapidly in China, including for meat. It is a small fraction volume-wise compared to total US pork export volumes to China, but e-commerce allows us to highlight the quality attributes of US pork and educate consumers about US pork production. Consumers are receptive to frozen product sold on e-commerce whereas at traditional retail, fresh/chilled is preferred. Very little fresh US pork is sold at China retail outlets because of challenges with importing and clearing such product through customs in a timely fashion.

M+P: How did Chinese consumers respond? What was the best- or fastest-selling item?

Haggard: Our e-commerce efforts can be considered exploratory at this phase, because this category of retail is so new. We are constantly discussing new items and recently held such talks with vendors here at the SIAL China food show. Currently, consumers are most aware of cuts such as butts and loins. Bellies and ribs are also popular but the US faces fierce price competition from other countries for these items.

M+P: Will USMEF do this again?

Haggard: Yes, we will continue to work at promoting US pork online. We work with vendors (those that package and ship the product, which sometimes is the platform itself) in developing promotional items.

M+P: How big do you foresee online sales of US pork in China becoming this year?

Haggard: Volumes are rising with overall online food and meat sales. US Beef will also be popular once it regains access to the Chinese market.

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