China's chocolate market looks sweet for Barry Callebaut

By Dominique Patton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Chocolate

Swiss chocolate maker Barry Callebaut is gearing up for the
chocolate market of the future, with the final go-ahead for its
first production plant in China

The company, which uses 15 per cent of the world's cocoa supply, makes almost 90 per cent of its sales in Europe and North America but it has embarked on a new regional focus to raise earnings in fast-growth emerging markets.

Maurizio Decio, new vice president for Asia, told that he plans to focus on the triangle between Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai to generate higher sales in this region. Japan, with its traditionally high quality standards, is already a strong market for the leading chocolate producer.

But China, with its enormous consumer base, is clearly the more exciting. China's demand for chocolate grows by between 10-15 per cent each year and many in the industry say demand will soon outpace the speed at which new chocolate factories can be built.

"The Chinese market is already the second biggest in the region [after Japan] and it is growing at incredible speed,"​ says Decio. "With the growth in income, especially on the east coast, consumption of impulse food is going to become much more accessible for a larger population."

Barry Callebaut opened a new sales office in Shanghai last month and is hoping to gain its construction permit for a production plant in the Suzhou area in the coming weeks. The plant will initially have capacity for 25,000 tonnes but is likely to be increased if market growth continues as expected.

The site of the production plant is significant. While the average annual chocolate consumption in China is only 100-150g, Shanghai's population is already eating about 1kg per head, according to Decio.

And if Shanghai residents and the 400 million people living in neighbouring cities on this affluent coastline reach the Japanese average of 2.2-2.3kg each, this gives Callebaut a potential market of some 800,000 metric tons of chocolate.

"We hope that this [new] plant will be mainly for the Shanghai area. Of course it is a good hub and we will be able to export to Korea and Japan but given current demand from both the gourmet and industrial segments, we hope sales will be mainly local."

Production in China, expected to start some time in 2008, means Callebaut can supply its Chinese clients with products like liquid chocolate which cannot be delivered the long distance from Singapore, currently the firm's only manufacturing site in Asia.

Importantly for Barry Callebaut, the trend towards higher quality chocolate is already evident in China. The company that prides itself on its range of dark chocolate and high polyphenol content products says it is seeing stronger demand for dark chocolate in China, like many other of its markets.

"You can see this growing interest in quality everywhere - in cars, in coffee and in chocolate too,"​ said Decio.

Confectioners offering products with higher cocoa content will be boosted by a new regulation entering into force on 1 December that requires products with more than 5 per cent vegetable fat to be labeled as containing cocoa substitutes.

"This is a positive move towards quality but it is the market that is already driving this trend ahead of any regulations,"​ believes Decio.

He added that the firm's gourmet business - selling chocolate to artisans, hotels and restaurants - is growing 'really, really strongly'​, another indication of the good demand for higher end products.

Indeed the gourmet business takes a higher proportion of sales than in many other parts of the world. Real growth in volumes will however come from the industrial side.

It is difficult to predict the speed at which this will happen but Decio notes that confectionery companies are increasingly making more of their sales in Asia than western markets.

China's Food Industry Association says that annual chocolate consumption, currently worth around CNY3 billion, is expected to reach CNY20 billion (€1.9bn) in the future, making it the largest chocolate market in the world.

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