In China, France is Losing its National Dish

In the latest "2023 Hidden Local Specialty Report" released by Taobao, the national dish of France, foie gras, is conspicuously labeled as the "new local specialties" of Huoqiu, a small county town in China. The following article is an attempt to unravel the mystery by translating and editing an article first published by a Chinese media outlet.
April 15, 2024
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Zhengjie Club
A financial media with insight, depth and sincerity. Here, we penetrate the fog of information together and discover the real China.

Huoqiu, a county in the city of Lu’an, Anhui Province, is located thousands of miles away from Paris. However, in various French restaurants across China, about one-third of the foie gras you eat is likely produced in this small country. With over 140 foie gras production enterprises, it produces more than 5,000 tons of foie gras annually, accounting for over one-third of the domestic production. Every year, Huoqiu processes more than five million Landes geese, a breed specially raised for foie gras.

In addition to foie gras, the production of by-products such as goose meat exceeds 22,500 tons, resulting in an annual output value of 2 billion yuan. Due to this large production capacity, domestically produced foie gras from Huoqiu and other regions matches the quality of imported foie gras but at a significantly lower price.

Domestically produced foie gras comes at a 40% discount compared to imported varieties. To give you a clear picture, while imported foie gras typically goes for around 218 yuan per 250g, domestically sourced foie gras is priced at just 131 yuan. It’s worth noting that even a decade ago, esteemed establishments like Maxim, frequented by celebrities, made the switch to domestically produced foie gras. And here’s the kicker: patrons found its taste to be on par with the renowned foie gras served at Maxim’s Parisian counterpart.

In China, domestically produced foie gras has almost monopolized the French restaurant market. Although Huoqiu’s foie gras has only gained popularity recently, the local foie gras industry has quietly developed for over 20 years.

In more than 20 towns in Huoqiu County, there are numerous companies engaged in the breeding of Landes geese and processing foie gras. It can be said that there is a foie gras enterprise every five kilometres and a processing enterprise every ten kilometres.

Aside from selling raw foie gras, Huoqiu County has established an integrated industry chain encompassing goose breeding, farming, and deep processing, maximizing the value of each goose. In Huoqiu, local companies engage in deep processing of foie gras, creating ready-to-eat snacks with cherry, ice cream and blueberry flavours.

Furthermore, the geese used for foie gras production have their meat, heads, and giblets processed into pre-cooked dishes. Whole geese are transported to Guangdong and other places to be made into roasted meat products. Even the goose feathers are not wasted, as down-processing companies come to purchase them.

In 2023, Huoqiu produced over 20,000 tons of foie gras by-products, generating sales of 150 million yuan from pre-cooked dishes. Goose farming has become a remarkable local specialty that can be proudly showcased.
While Huoqiu is famous for its foie gras, it is not the earliest production base of foie gras in China. Huoqiu’s “mentor” is actually Linqu County in Shandong Province.

In 2003, Hu Jianyuan, from Huoqiu County’s Huayuan Town, heard from his brother who was working in Shandong about something unbelievable, “Foie gras can grow up to 1 kilogram!” This was astonishing because, in the common understanding of ordinary people, a large goose weighs only a few kilograms, so how could its foie gras grow to be as heavy as 2 kilograms?

The variety of goose liver that Hu Jianyuan’s brother mentioned, capable of growing up to 2 kilograms, was the Landes goose, originally from Landes County in southwestern France. This goose breed is specifically used for foie gras production. As early as the 1990s, it was introduced and bred in places like Linqu County, Shandong.

Hu Jianyuan further learned that at that time, foie gras was sold at 180 yuan per kilogram, while the cost of producing it was only 50 yuan per kilogram. This huge profit margin caught his attention.

Intrigued by the potential business opportunity, Hu Jianyuan immediately decided to learn more about foie gras production. He travelled to Shandong to study goose farming techniques and introduced to the Huoqiu farmers, shared his expertise and encouraged them to venture into this new industry.

Initially, the local farmers were sceptical and hesitated to adopt this unfamiliar business. However, Hu Jianyuan’s persistence and successful demonstration of the profitability of foie gras production gradually won them over. With the support of local government policies and financial incentives, the foie gras industry in Huoqiu County began to flourish. Over the years, the industry continued to grow and attract more participants. As the number of foie gras production enterprises increased, Huoqiu County established itself as the leading production base of foie gras in China.

The triumph of Huoqiu’s foie gras industry can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the region’s favourable climate and geographical conditions provide an ideal setting for goose rearing. With abundant water resources, fertile land, and a temperate climate, Huoqiu offers the perfect environment for cultivating feed crops and ensuring the well-being of the geese.

Secondly, the unwavering dedication and hard work of local farmers have been instrumental in the industry’s success. Embracing this new venture wholeheartedly, they have diligently acquired knowledge and skills, implementing modern farming techniques to guarantee the quality and productivity of their geese.

Furthermore, the establishment of a comprehensive industry chain and the development of advanced processing capabilities have significantly contributed to the industry’s prosperity. By extracting maximum value from each goose through the production of various by-products and processed dishes, local enterprises have not only increased their revenue but also created a sustainable business model for the long term.

Finally, the surge in demand for European cuisine within China’s domestic markets has been a pivotal driver of the foie gras industry’s success. With domestic production matching the quality of imported foie gras but at a more affordable price point, local restaurants and consumers have enthusiastically embraced domestically sourced foie gras.

At the beginning of the century, while many people had heard of foie gras as a famous French dish, few had actually tasted it, and even fewer restaurants and chefs were skilled in preparing it. Furthermore, the high price of foie gras, around 1,000 to 2000 RMB per kilogram at the time, made it a luxury ingredient. Hu Jianyuan travelled to major cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing to find markets in upscale ingredient markets and hotels.

During that time, Huoqiu and its foie gras were relatively unknown in the market. Therefore, when promoting their product, Hu Jianyuan had to mention, “Our foie gras breeding base is located in Huoqiu County, Lu’an City, Anhui Province,” as people had no idea where Huoqiu was. The first batch of 1,000 geese brought Hu Jianyuan a profit of over 30,000 RMB, which made the people of Huoqiu believe in the potential of foie gras production.

Over time, Huoqiu caught up with Linqu, which had been producing foie gras since the 1980s and became the largest domestic French-style foie gras breeding base in China. However, despite more than 20 years of development, Huoqiu’s foie gras industry still faced challenges, as many people believed foie gras should only come from France.

Exporting foie gras from China has been difficult due to strict regulations imposed by European countries, which had banned foie gras production and set specific rules targeting Chinese foie gras, even though domestically produced foie gras was of comparable quality to the French original. As a result, there is limited data on large-scale foie gras exports, with some products being exported to Hong Kong, Macau, and neighbouring countries like Japan.

Nevertheless, the domestic market, particularly the 60 million middle-class consumers in China, which is roughly equivalent to the population of France, represents a significant consumer group for foie gras. The consumption of foie gras has expanded from high-end French restaurants in major cities to small to mid-sized cities, as indicated by the increasing foie gras orders in those areas.

In 2019, Hu Jianyuan was invited to have an 888 RMB foie gras dish in Shanghai, which inspired him to add value to Huoqiu’s foie gras by diversifying its processing methods. They developed various foie gras products such as cherry foie gras, sake foie gras, ice cream bricks, rose foie gras, blueberry foie gras, and pan-seared foie gras. The foie gras which was once considered a Western ingredient unknown to ordinary people has transformed into a ready-to-eat specialty snack.

In addition to foie gras producers, the local government also considers the development of the entire industry chain from foie gras to other goose products. This continuous extension of the industry chain has made Huoqiu, an unknown county, the largest county-level foie gras production and processing base in the country.

In the past, Huoqiu’s goose farmers worried about whether consumers would be willing to pay high prices if they knew that the expensive foie gras served in French restaurants did not come from France but from a small county in Lu’an, Anhui Province. However, as long as they focus on their own development and not be overwhelmed by sudden prosperity, the market and consumers will naturally accept it. Just like with domestically produced caviar, the Chinese have proven that they can dethrone those luxurious “high-end ingredients” from their pedestals.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when Chinese people mention foie gras, Huoqiu, this small county, will come to mind before Paris, the capital of France.

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Zhengjie Club
A financial media with insight, depth and sincerity. Here, we penetrate the fog of information together and discover the real China.
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