The future of the world chicken industry depends a lot on the taste for chicken in China. Currently chicken is not the most popular protein in China, nor is it second or even third. Chicken meat is a distant fourth after pork, farmed fish and table eggs. If the Chinese develop a taste for eating slightly more chicken, the country would become the largest producer of chicken meat.

Since 1978 when the Chinese economy began to open up, the urban middle class in China increased by hundreds of millions of people and their income rose in a spectacular fashion. The experience in other countries was that increasing urban population combined with higher income led to a rapid and continuing increase in modern chicken production and consumption. The experience in China was similar at the beginning. However, chicken growth slowed as economic expansion continued.

Why do the Chinese eat so little chicken?

Chicken growth slowed because of competition from other proteins, an odd concept for those of us in the U.S. chicken industry. As China urbanized and became richer, consumers there purchased more and more pork, a protein they really wanted all along and now eat in amazing quantities. China now produces half of all the pork on the planet. The second choice among Chinese consumers is farmed fish; a protein that barely shows up on radar in the U.S. China is the largest producer and consumer of farmed fish in the world. The third choice for protein is chicken eggs, an understandably good choice of protein. China is the largest producer of hen eggs and has been number one for a long time. In fourth place comes chicken meat which comprises a combination of native breeds as well as the commercial breeds more common in the rest of the world.

Many analysts expect that modern chicken consumption and production will accelerate in China. For example, Rabobank1 cites the high consumption and production of chicken in other areas with Chinese culture such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan as evidence that China itself will produce and consume more chicken in the future. If consumption per capita increases by a scant 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) in China between 2010 and 2020, China could become the world's largest producer and consumer of chicken.


China's role as chicken exporter to increase

Not only is China likely to become the largest producer in the world, it could become the largest importer and a large exporter of chicken meat. China is already one of largest importers of chicken meat as well as one of the largest exporters of chicken meat. The net value of Chinese exports, high value-added breast meat, exceeds the value of their imports, mostly paws and leg quarters, making China a net exporter of chicken by value. The country can accomplish this by arbitrage of chicken parts. Chicken breast meat is relatively unwanted in China and therefore cheap compared to the rest of the world. As a result, China can be competitive in deboned breast meat and, in particular, value-added breast meat products given low-cost labor. If China can manage food safety and disease problems, there is every reason to expect those exports to increase. Imports as well will continue to rise. China is likely to become the world's largest importer with two million metric tons of imports in 2020.    

In the end, the current low chicken consumption in China is less important than the future taste for chicken in China. Should demand in China increase, even by a relatively small amount, the impact on global chicken production and trade will be profound.

[1] Crossroads for Growth in the Poultry Industry, Rabobank 2013