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China Facilitates Standardized Development of the Pre-cooked Food Industry

The Notice on Tightening the Supervision of Pre-cooked Food Safety to Promote High-Quality Industry Development marks the first national-level clarification of the scope of pre-cooked food, providing clearer guidance for enterprises in this sector. Furthermore, the emphasis on standards establishment and food safety supervision is anticipated to raise the market access threshold and bolster consumers’ recognition.

On March 21, the State Administration for Market Regulation of China and five other departments jointly issued the Notice on Tightening the Supervision of Pre-cooked Food Safety to Promote High-Quality Industry Development (hereafter referred to as Notice).1 The Notice focuses on the following four aspects:

Defining the Scope of Pre-cooked Food

As per the Notice, pre-cooked food refers to preservative-free dishes made from one or more edible agricultural products and their derivatives, added with seasonings and other ingredients or not. These dishes are industrially pre-processed (such as stirring, marinating, rolling, shaping, frying, baking, boiling, steaming, etc.), packaged with or without seasoning packets, and subject to specified storage, transportation, and sales conditions indicated on the product label. They are only edible after heating or cooking.

It's crucial to clarify that staple foods such as bread, hamburgers, sandwiches, pizzas, frozen noodle dishes, and instant food are not classified as pre-cooked food. Besides, raw dishes that have undergone basic processing such as cleaning, peeling, and slicing, but have not undergone cooking, do not fall under the category of pre-cooked food. Additionally, semi-finished and finished dishes prepared by central kitchens for distribution to their own stores are excluded from the definition of pre-cooked food.

Advancing the Establishment of National Standards for Pre-cooked Food 

The Notice proposes to formulate the national food safety standard for pre-cooked food, specifying requirements for aspects including production, storage, and cold chain logistics. The Notice also suggests the development of complementary regulations for pre-cooked food under the framework of national food safety standard.

Strengthening the Supervision of Pre-cooked Food Safety

The Notice emphasizes the strict implementation of corporate responsibility to regulate the use of food raw materials and food additives, as well as the enhanced management of production licensing to raise the entry threshold into the pre-cooked food industry. Additionally, it calls for intensified inspection of pre-cooked food products to crack down violations.

Facilitating High-quality Development of the Pre-cooked Food Industry

The Notice highlights strengthening the supply capacity of raw materials that are safe and with high quality, driving innovation in key technologies, expediting the application of advanced production equipment, and fostering a supportive environment for industry growth.

The pre-cooked food industry has emerged as a rapidly growing sector in China, fostering the coordinated development of agricultural production, food processing, cold chain logistics, and catering industries. However, the lack of clear product scope definition and uniform standards has led to ambiguity in enterprise strategies and raised consumer concerns about food safety. This Notice not only marks the first national-level clarification of the scope of pre-cooked food, but also emphasizes the standards establishment and food safety supervision, which is anticipated to raise the market access threshold and bolster consumers' recognition. Overall, this Notice is conducive to the standardized development of the pre-cooked food industry, thereby paving the way for broader opportunities in the future.

To provide stakeholders with a deeper understanding of China's pre-cooked food market, ChemLinked offers an overview of the sector as below.

Market Size

According to iiMedia Research,2 China's pre-cooked food market size (in a broad sense) reached 516.5 billion yuan in 2023, an increase of 23.1% YoY. With ongoing technological advancements and supportive policies, the market size is projected to exceed one trillion yuan by 2026.

China‘s pre-cooked food market size

Customer Segmentation

The pre-cooked food is commonly distributed through both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) channels. The B2B channel primarily serves catering enterprises, including chain restaurants and takeaway outlets, dominating 80% market share.2 Pre-cooked food preparation requires minimal skilled chefs and kitchen facilities, enabling high serving efficiency and cost control for catering businesses.

Examples of Chinese pre-cooked cuisinesPictures of Chinese pre-cooked cuisines from the Internet

In the B2C channel, pre-cooked food is directly sold to individual consumers via e-commerce platforms, supermarkets, and other retail channels. The convenience of pre-cooked meals resonates with the busy lifestyles of young urban consumers. Consumers appreciate the ease of reheating or simply cooking the flavorful pre-cooked food. Moreover, a variety of pre-cooked dishes can cater to diverse occasions, such as home gatherings and festive celebrations. Data from Nint indicates that the sales of pre-cooked food on traditional e-commerce and livestreaming commerce platforms grew by more than 30% and 25% in 2023 respectively.3 As cold chain and freshness preservation technologies continue to improve and pre-cooked food standards become more established, deeper penetration into the consumer market is anticipated in the long term.

Aspects That Consumers Are Satisfied with Regarding Pre-Cooked Food

Market Players

Enterprises venturing into the pre-cooked food industry can be generally classified into six categories based on their core businesses. These categories include specialized pre-cooked food enterprises such as Weizhixiang, frozen food manufacturing enterprises like Anjoy Food, raw material suppliers such as Guolian Aquatic Products, catering enterprises like Guangzhou Restaurant, food supply chain entities like Shuhai Supply Chain, and fresh food e-commerce retailers like Fresh Hippo. The following is the list of the top 10 pre-cooked food enterprises in China according to the "Hurun China Top 100 Pre-cooked Food Production Enterprises".5

Brand/Enterprise Name

Core Businesses Scope

Anjoy

Frozen food manufacturing

Yum China

Catering

Juewei Food

Catering

Shuanghui

RTD meet product manufacturing

Weizhixiang

Specialized pre-cooked food manufacturing

Lvjin Food

Specialized pre-cooked food manufacturing

New Hope

Raw material supplier

Fresh Hippo

Fresh food e-commerce retailer

Guangzhou Restaurant

Catering

Guolian Aquatic Products

Raw material supplier

Development Directions

Product Innovation with Emphasis on Food Safety and Quality

Through product R&D and technological innovation, pre-cooked food enterprises are actively working to diversify cuisines, cooking methods, and explore various dining scenarios such as picnic and camping. Moreover, as consumers increasingly prioritize food safety, ensuring the quality, hygiene, and safety of pre-cooked food has become crucial for business development. All these endeavors aim to meet the demand of a broader consumer base for delicious, convenient and healthy meal options, thereby solidifying a strong brand presence in the market.

Aspects That Consumers Are Unsatisfied with Regarding Pre-Cooked Food

Enhanced Industry Chain Integration

Pre-cooked food enterprises are investing in industry chain integration, from raw material sourcing and production to sales channels and cold chain logistics. A stable and efficient supply chain enables competitive pricing, superior distribution and delivery capabilities, as well as greater flexibility to market changes, so that enterprises can build robust competitive advantages and better serve consumer needs.

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