Local lamb on Chinese menus

Gone are the days when imported products were always seen as better in China. Hunter McGregor reports from Shanghai.

In Business7 Minutes
Xinjiang milk-fed lamb is a dish from the French (one Michelin Star) restaurant in Shanghai.

Consumers in China are constantly changing, which is always a challenge and an opportunity. The speed of change is also much faster than in New Zealand, which is one of the primary reasons I operate a business in China.

You now see Chinese lamb as a promoted main dish in some high-end western restaurants. This would not have been the case a few years ago. It is a significant consumer shift, and highlights two things:

  1. Consumers are willing to pay top dollar for Chinese products
  2. The product is high-enough quality for the chefs to use it.


As things continue to change, the Chinese consumer now sees some Chinese products and brands as trendy, excellent and high quality. This has been happening outside of food for a while, but in the past couple of years is now across everything, especially food.

Gone are the days when imported products were always seen as better. With a maturing in the market, Chinese consumers now have a sense of pride in and are happy to support local brands.

I think this trend started in the technology space, starting online (likes of Alibaba and Tencent) and then mobile phones. For years, Apple has made just about all its devices in China, so quality production is possible in China.

Many local companies jumped into this space and like everything, some were excellent quality and others not. But some locally branded phones catered better to some customers’ requirements, like two or more SIM cards or a high-quality front-facing camera for a better selfie. Now, Chinese brands are worldwide players.

The next evolution has been in food, with local brands catering better to fast-changing consumer demands. An excellent example is a Cheese snack brand like MilkGround that focuses more on local tastes (sweet and different flavours) and packaging, better than foreign brands. Being in China, they can also adjust faster to local tastes and trends.

Any company leading with “country of origin” marketing in China will not get the cut-through they once did. Country of origin is still part of the mix, but it’s not as important as it once was. Most Chinese consumers are now more interested in the product or brand and how it fits them.

Some Chinese products and brands are now seen as cool. Long gone are the days of if a product is imported then it’s seen superior to the local equivalent.

Improved quality of local lamb

China has about 170 million sheep, about five times NZ’s nearly 30 million. So it is not surprising they have some high-quality lamb, given their overall volume produced.

More than eight years ago, when I started supplying high-end restaurants with NZ venison, I was talking with a Kiwi chef based in China about local lamb. They told me some Chinese lamb was good, but they could never get a consistent supply. Consistently in supply has obviously improved, and it is a lot easier to get quality local lamb, not mutton dressed up as lamb.

Some Chinese sheep meat processing plants would be near to NZ standards, which will also help with the quality arriving in some restaurant kitchens. As with NZ lamb, the environment where Chinese lamb is grown has influenced the finished product. The central lamb-growing areas are in the north of China. They have a short growing season with plenty of heat (+30C) and very tough winters of regularly -20C to -30C. It is very different to a “tough” winter in the South Island. I have spent some time outside in the north of China during winter, and it’s not much fun!

But like all meat, Chinese lamb and NZ lamb in China are not all the same quality. Before I started selling meat in China, I stopped eating NZ lamb in China as I could not find any decent product. Luckily, this has changed.

I do not cook or eat Chinese lamb at home, as I have never found any that is to the quality and taste of NZ lamb. This is an opportunity for NZ lamb. Flavour profile, taste, and texture and how this fits with consumers are now more critical than ever. A couple of NZ lamb brands do this very well. Unfortunately, many do not.

To continue moving NZ lamb in China from volume to value (a great NZ government buzz expression), end-consumers need to be front and centre. With the direction of change in the Chinese market, NZ lamb is still in a good position because of its product quality.

The key is leveraging the right attributes that best resonate with the right consumers – no different from many other markets. That’s the challenge, but one I think has plenty of long-term upsides for NZ lamb in China.

  • Hunter McGregor is a Chinese-speaking Kiwi based in Shanghai selling NZ meat into China.