China’s high fliers dine on marlin, butterfish

Published on
May 22, 2012

Marlin and butterfish are becoming popular fare for first-class passengers on China’s flagship carrier, Air China, according to the company that supplies seafood to Beijing Air Catering Co. Ltd.

Marlin may, however, be replaced on the first-class menu this year on cost grounds, according to Michael D. Liu, assistant to the general manager (purchasing) at food importer Beijing Foreign Trade Food Service Co. (BFT). A respected trade company originally set up by government to import food for Beijing’s embassies and hotels, BFT sources its seafood from Culimer and local seafood suppliers.

The formerly state-owned BFT now concentrates on supplying five-star hotels and high-end supermarket BHG with meat and seafood products.

“Sales are very good,” said Liu. BFT uses Netherlands-based wholesaler Culimer for marlin and butterfish but also sources trout from the Huairou district outside Beijing, explained Liu. The firm sources mackerel from Qingdao.

BFT has a factory outside Beijing where it processes and smokes fish product. Demand for halibut is limited, said Liu, but Beijing’s ever-growing list of five-star hotels — recent openings include a Hilton in the historic central Dongcheng district near the BFT office — is driving demand for smoked mackerel.

Finding quality mackerel supplies, however, is an issue. BFT has seen prices rise while quality has become more inconsistent. “The flesh in many cases is too soft or too dry,” said Liu.

Having once been the Chinese capital’s sole salmon importer, BFT has moved out of the salmon distribution business, explained Liu, because it’s too hard to compete with myriad distributors selling salmon through various channels in Beijing, some of them illegally. “We are fully legal; we pay all the relevant taxes. We can’t compete with the prices charged by others who don’t perhaps pay all the taxes.”

Sales of shrimp are “very good” at the high end, said Liu who believes that food-safety scandals in China will continue to drive sales of imported seafood among the country’s wealthy. “Celebrities have already been talking about this on TV and it’s having an impact,” he said. 

BFT will seek to grow its business through hotels, air catering companies and supermarkets, said Liu, who avoids the burgeoning high-end restaurant scene due to what he calls an erratic payment record among many of Beijing’s new breed of restaurateurs, many of them new to the trade. Liu is still seeking payment from a “very luxurious Italian-style restaurant that opened in the Landmark Centre in Beijing’s business district. “Within a year they had suddenly disappeared without paying,” he said.

Just as it appears well placed to cash in on the growth of China’s hotel trade, BFT may also benefit from the growth predicted for the country’s aviation sector. China’s air passenger numbers are forecasted to increase from 266 million last year to 700 million in 2020 while the country’s airlines will purchase 5,000 new jets in the 20 coming years, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

Marlin prices, meanwhile, may continue to rise. Distinguished by a long bill, marlin remains in short supply due to overfishing concerns in the deep waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, according to conservation organizations.

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