By ZHANG Qin
Since the 1980’s, “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” defined the American television show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You couldn’t have wealth in the United States - or much of the developed world, it seemed, without a thin slice of toast and a big spoonful of black and lustrous caviar. It’s the ultimate status symbol on a plate.
Increasingly, though, much of that caviar - also known as “black gold” is “Made in China”. The Hustle reported that China accounts for more than 60 percent of the global caviar market.
According to EUMOFA though, China’s caviar production increased 10 times between 2003 to 2015 to 90,000 tons. In 2016, China accounts for a whopping 85.3 percent of the global market.
Caviar is pickled, lightly salted roe of sturgeon, salmon or other fish. In Persian, it just means “egg-bearing.” Strictly speaking, only the roe of sturgeon can be called caviar. According to Baidu Encyclopedia, the best quality caviar is produced in the Caspian Sea bordering Iran and Russia.
Historically, China was not a major producer of caviar. In the 1990s, Russia and Iran dominated the global caviar supply. The Beluga Sturgeon in the Caspian Sea used to be a long-term stable source of the prized fish until overfishing endangered the species, and the supply plummeted.
Japan, Israel and China then began farming caviar. At present, there are eight species of sturgeons in China: Amur Sturgeon, Huso Dauricus, and Green Sturgeon. They live in the Heilong, Songhua, and Ussuri Rivers. The Chinese sturgeon: Dabry's and Beluga Sturgeon livie in the Yangtze and Jinsha Rivers.
According to the Hustle, the export volume of Chinese caviar has exploded, increasing five-fold from 2012 to 2017. In 2017, China exported over 130 metric tons of caviar. At the same time, the United States’ caviar production was less than 16 metric tons.
The relatively inexpensive Chinese caviar quickly overtook the market share of American companies. Many U.S. caviar companies saw their sales decrease by 50 percent. From 2014 to 2018, U.S. caviar imports increased from $7.6 million to $17.8 million. In 2018, nearly half of the caviar imported by the United States came from China, forcing many American producers to lower their prices by 25 percent. Even though the United States government imposed an extra 10 percent tariff on Chinese imports in September 2018, it did not help American caviar producers to regain price advantage and market share.
Demand for caviar in China is also growing. According to the South China Morning Post, more than half of the world's caviar farms are in China. The China Sturgeon Association predicts that by 2020, China will consume 100 tons of caviar every year, and the current global caviar production is about 200 tons every year.
Although Chinese caviar is popping up on dining tables all over the world, the trend is occurring quietly.
Global luxury food suppliers and consumers are not yet accustomed to the label "Made in China." For example, more than half of the caviar used by the French high-end caviar brand Petrossian comes from China. However, when Petrossian sells its caviar to Michelin restaurants, it avoids any mention of the origin.
Kaluga Queen is the largest producer of caviar in the world. It is headquartered near Qiandao Lake, Zhejiang Province. In 2011, six years after it was founded, it began selling caviar to Lufthansa's first-class cabins. In 2016, it became the official caviar supplier of the G20 Summit. It is also a frequent attendee at the Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium. Last year, in an interview with China Daily, the brand said that, at the beginning, when people heard "Made in China", they immediately refused to buy it -- or even to taste it. The only reason that Kaluga Queen won the contract to supply Lufthansa with caviar is that the German airline decided its suppliers based on a blind taste test.
In fact, Kaluga Queen is the caviar brand of Hangzhou Qiandao Lake Xunlong Technology Co., Ltd. The company is also the largest producer of caviar in the world. Now, Kaluga is the market leader. In 2018, the company produced a total of 79.79 tons of caviar and sold 78.47 tons of caviar, which accounted for 35% of the global market. In its flagship store on Tmall.com, the price for the Kaluga Queen Beluga sturgeon Caviar Gift Box (100g) is 18,000 RMB (2,550 USD).
The British market research company Technavio predicts that by 2021, the global market value of caviar will reach $1.55 billion, increasing by nearly 75 percent compared with 2016. That means Chinese caviar companies still have the time to win customers away from their prejudice against “Made in China” -- even without a blind taste test.