Chinese firms to buy more global food companies to meet demand at home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 4:48am

After buying up everything from US hogs to British breakfast cereals, China still has an appetite for food deals.

Chinese companies are racing to secure access to food supplies to meet the growing demand for staples in the world's most populous country.

Cofco, China's largest grain trader, agreed on Wednesday to invest in Singapore-listed Noble Group's agricultural trading unit, a week after saying it would take a majority stake in Dutch grain trader Nidera.

Food-related acquisitions by Chinese buyers reached a record in 2013, led by the US$4.7 billion purchase of Virginia pork processor Smithfield Foods.

As China's middle class becomes richer and tastes broaden, other international food suppliers may become takeover targets.

"There is a very strong motivation to control their own supply chains," said Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at Britain's University of Leeds. China's domestic food production alone could not meet the country's needs, he said.

According to the agreement with Hong Kong-based Noble, Cofco will own 51 per cent of a new division that will be the Chinese company's primary means of obtaining food ingredients worldwide.

"Anything that results in having access to food products or the infrastructure that takes them from the farm to the port and out to sea, there'll be demand for," said Neil Pathak, a Melbourne-based mergers and acquisition lawyer with Gilbert & Tobin. "In Asia, there's going to be incredible growth, and food security is going to become increasingly important."

Already the biggest consumer of meat globally, China might double beef imports by 2018 as rising wealth changes diets, Rabobank International, which specialises in agricultural research, said in December.

The world may need an extra one billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million more tonnes of livestock products every year by 2050 as the global population grows to nine billion from seven billion, according to a 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Beyond beef and grains, Chinese buyers are also pursuing brands that may later suit tastes at home, said Meredith Paynter, a partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons.

China's acquisition spree may face regulatory and other hurdles. Former Israel intelligence agency chief Ephraim Halevy has said the sale of assets including Tnuva Food to Chinese buyers threatens national security.

"If we do not wake up in time, we will find that they will take over not only our food, but our academia," he told a parliamentary panel in February.