Chinese starting to say cheese

The sight and smell of a block of parmesan cheese seemed pleasing enough to Han Jin at first, but a nibble made him gag.

The sight and smell of a block of parmesan cheese seemed pleasing enough to Han Jin at first, but a nibble made him gag.

The Chinese businessman's first experience is shared by many of his compatriots, who consider cheese a strange, even alien, dairy product.

"Cheese is new for us in China. Most people only know the word cheese but don't know what it is or how to use it," said Mr Han, general manager of Shanghai Roria Trading Company, a distributor of imported food.

After acquiring a taste for various cheeses from around the world - from blue cheese to mozzarella - Mr Han is on a mission to cultivate the same appreciation in other Chinese people. "We're organising seminars about cheese for adults and children," he said. "There's much to learn."

Growing disposable incomes and exposure to Western-style food through chains such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut is driving China's demand for cheese.

China rose from Australia's sixth to second-largest cheese export market in the past two years, with 7400 tonnes of cheese - almost three times the amount of a decade ago - landing in China in 2012.

Japan remains the biggest market, figures from Dairy Australia show. NSW was the second-biggest export contributor after Victoria.

Mr Han's company sold 100 tonnes of mostly French and Italian cheese in China last year, up from 40 tonnes four years ago. He said he was helping fellow distributors secure markets for Australian cheese in first-tier cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

"Local consumers are becoming interested in foreign food and foreign tastes," he said, when asked about the boom. "People also believe food and drinks from developed countries are safer and healthier."

Each year, Australia jostles with the US to be the second-biggest cheese exporter to China, but both are far behind New Zealand, which is reaping the benefits of a free trade agreement.

"Chinese dairy imports for 2012 were more than 1.3 million tonnes, up 26 per cent on 2011. Smooth Chinese leadership transition and plans to significantly lift domestic consumption will support ongoing demand," industry analyst at Dairy Australia John Droppert said.

Bega Cheese accounts for half of NSW's cheese exports and is the state's only cheesemaker exporting to China. While its biggest market is Japan, the growth story is in China.

"As GDP improves in more Asian countries, you're seeing families move to more protein products, and, obviously, dairy is the first port of call," Bega Cheese chairman Barry Irvin said.

China's public health scandals - such as the melamine-contaminated infant formula in 2008 that killed six babies - drove a demand for Australian dairy products, Mr Irvin said. "They feel safer with products from here. We're the preferred source of supply."

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