China’s pizza passion reels in mozzarella

MELBOURNE, Australia — China’s economy may be slowing, but its love affair with pizza is raging.

And you can’t make pizza pie without mozzarella. That’s good news for Fonterra Cooperative, the world’s biggest dairy exporter and China’s top supplier of the cheese.

The Auckland-based company plans to lift mozzarella output to 50,000 metric tons a year by September 2015, enough to garnish about 350 million pizzas. It forecasts demand for the cheese in China will gain about 20 percent this year and next.

Yum Brands, operator of restaurant chains including Pizza Hut, estimates China’s consuming class will double to 600 million people by 2020, driving demand for fast food. Fonterra, which also supplies Domino’s Pizza, is raising mozzarella output across its two New Zealand plants and aims to more than double the number of its offices and operations in China to 50 locations to meet dairy demand.

“Particularly in Asia, they like the stretch of mozzarella and couple of times a night in a Pizza Hut or a Domino’s, or a pizzeria, they’ll have stretch contests,” Rene Dedoncker, Melbourne-based director of Fonterra’s foodservice division, said in an interview. “The appetite of the consumer in China for Western diets and for pizza, which is seen to be quite iconic,” is forecast to keep growing.

China is consuming more protein and dairy as changing tastes are accelerated by a population shift to the cities. Urban inhabitants spend two and a half times more on food compared to those in the countryside, HSBC Holdings said in a March report. That’s spurring growth in a global pizza market that was worth about $125 billion a year at the end of 2012, according to Euromonitor International.

Fonterra, which got 13 percent of its revenue in China in fiscal 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, has invested NZ$72 million ($62 million) to raise mozzarella output at its Clandeboye, New Zealand, plant. New technology will enable the company to cut to one day from two months the length of time it takes to make the cheese, Dedoncker said.

“The growth of fast food and processed food throughout Asia is leading to higher demand for processed cheese and mozzarella,” said Mark Topy, a Melbourne-based analyst at Canaccord Genuity Group. “There’s going to be some opportunities in that space for companies that can provide a long term supply of mozzarella.”

Louisville, Ky.-based Yum, which opened China’s first pizza chain in 1990, will add at least 700 new food outlets in the country this year and swell the number of Pizza Huts to 1,100. Papa John’s International also competes in China, with about 202 outlets, according to a March 25 filing.

China’s pizza market was worth about $2 billion in 2012, or 1.6 percent of the global market, an increase from 2007 when it accounted for about $822 million of a $111.2 billion world market, according to data compiled by Euromonitor International. Yum! took more than half its sales from China in the 12 months to Dec. 28, according to Bloomberg data.

To be sure, Fonterra faces global competition from Leprino Foods Co. and Saputo Inc., Canada’s largest milk processor. Saputo may consider asset purchases to raise its mozzarella output, Chief Executive Officer Lino Saputo told a Feb. 6 earnings call.

“The majority of our growth in the next five years is all about China,” Dedoncker said in an April 4 interview. “I’d say there’s an 80 percent chance that any time you have a pizza there, it’s Fonterra cheese.”

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