Published: 12:32, April 11, 2024
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Measures to bolster catering sector
By Xu Wei

Policy to help industry facing various challenges as it recovers from epidemic


The central government has outlined a raft of measures to bolster the high-quality development of China's catering sector, pledging to further enhance food safety, improve the skills of industry professionals and help more Chinese restaurants explore the international market.

In a policy document published on March 28, the Ministry of Commerce and eight other departments highlighted the need to further improve the quality of catering services, optimize the business climate and spur consumer spending in the sector.

Key measures include improving food safety levels in the industry through enhanced monitoring of the use of ingredients and of supply chains.

Catering businesses will be encouraged to disclose their ingredients and cooking methods in the catering process, with special actions to be taken to reduce the use of food additives.

He Yadong, a spokesman with the Ministry of Commerce, said in a news briefing on March 28 that enhancing the high-quality development of the catering sector is a key step in efforts to boost consumption, improve public well-being and stabilize the job market.

He explained that the revenue from the catering sector now accounts for more than 10 percent of China's total retail sales, and the number of catering businesses has exceeded 10 million.

The latest measures follow the sector's robust recovery last year from the downturn induced by the COVID-19 epidemic, with the total revenue for related businesses hitting a historical high of 5.29 trillion yuan ($731.3 billion) last year, up 13.2 percent from pre-epidemic levels.

Among the nearly 15.73 million catering enterprises across the country, more than 4.1 million were newly registered in 2023, with private firms accounting for over 80 percent, industry data shows.

However, officials have said new policy measures supporting the high-quality development of the sector are urgently needed as the sector is confronted with multiple challenges.

Yang Liu, president of the China Cuisine Association, said the rising costs of rent, labor and raw materials are among the most pressing issues for businesses.

Meanwhile, a lack of progress in digital transformation, competition among businesses and a shortage of talent are also constraining the growth of the catering sector.

"Some catering enterprises choose to imitate models of their competitors instead of investing resources in innovation and developing new products," she said.

A recent survey conducted by Yang's association found that 55 percent of catering businesses were faced with a shortage of workers, while 28 percent reported an extreme shortage.

"Moreover, there is an even greater scarcity of skilled professionals in the catering industry, with young talent unwilling to find jobs in the sector and high-caliber talent flowing to other sectors," she said.

Liu Tao, a researcher with the institute of market economy at the Development Research Center of the State Council, China's Cabinet, said the latest policy document has come up with tailored measures to help catering businesses solve the challenges troubling them most, especially the labor shortage.

One of the most important solutions, he said, is to encourage local authorities to support catering businesses in their digital transformation and greater use of automated facilities.

He explained that the sector's high-quality growth should be underpinned by stronger efforts to diversify the industrial structure, improve the efficiency of operations and strengthen the quality of services.

To resolve the talent shortage in the sector, the latest policy document pledged to make more of an effort to boost the skills of industry professionals.

Local authorities must coordinate the use of funds allocated for industrial development, talent cultivation and vocational skills training to better hone the skills of catering practitioners, the document said, adding that universities and vocational colleges will be given greater support to offer majors related to catering management and culinary arts.

Cooperation between vocational education institutions and enterprises in the catering sector will be encouraged, with more vocational skills competitions set to be organized.

The development and application of artificial intelligence, big data and intelligent devices in the sector is another policy priority, with the government pledging to further the digital empowerment of the industry.

Authorities have also highlighted the need to develop more well-known catering brands and to encourage further exploration of traditional cooking skills, culinary culture and the growing popularity of famous dishes, snacks and restaurants.

The development of semi-prepared foods, which have sparked public concerns for their nutrition and safety, is also set to receive greater regulatory oversight, with the policy document pledging to come up with relevant standards as soon as possible and conduct continuous risk assessment and monitoring.

Zhao Jingqiao, an analyst in the catering sector from the National Academy of Economic Strategy, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the introduction of more national standards on semi-prepared foods will further bolster food quality.

China has more than 70,000 companies making food items that have undergone some preparation but are not fully cooked or ready to eat, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The curbing of food waste is also emphasized by policymakers in the document, with restaurants and online food delivery platforms required to offer more clear information on their meals and reminders for ordering appropriate amounts, encourage meal sharing and provide smaller portions.

To accelerate the international expansion of Chinese cuisine, the policy document highlighted the need to better help catering businesses explore overseas markets.

The nation will strengthen cooperation with countries and regions in inspection and quarantine procedures and support exports of catering ingredients and materials into international markets.

Another key step in ramping up the popularity of Chinese cuisine overseas is to work more with foreign entities in terms of vocational training. This will involve such moves as encouraging professional Chinese culinary schools to expand their international cooperation channels.

Yang, from the China Cuisine Association, said the expansion of Chinese catering businesses to global markets will require greater branding efforts and heightened steps to boost the cultural appeal of Chinese cuisine.

She highlighted the need to encourage more Chinese chefs to work abroad, saying that industry associations and chambers of commerce should guide catering enterprises to actively explore overseas markets.

It is also important to further explore the cultural elements of local specialties, enable more Chinese cooking techniques to be listed as UNESCO intangible cultural heritages and encourage catering businesses to strengthen international exchanges and cooperation, she added.