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Animal Frontiers - International Perspectives

What is meat in China?


This article in

  1. Vol. 7 No. 4, p. 53-56
    Published: September 21, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s):
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  1. Rui Liua,
  2. Lujuan Xinga,
  3. Guanghong Zhoua and
  4. Wangang Zhang *a
  1. a Key Laboratory of Meat Processing and Quality Control, Ministry of Education, Jiangsu Collaborative Innovation Center of Meat Production and Processing, Quality and Safety Control, College of Food Science and Technology, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing 210095, China


  • China has long history for meat and meat products recorded by many ancient documents. For two decades, the total meat production in China consistently ranks first place in the world with the consumption of pork meat dominant in the market.

  • In China, a broad definition of meat includes all edible tissues of animals, basically including livestock animals, poultry, and aquatic species. A stricter definition of meat is that consisting of the skeletal muscle and associated fat.

  • Three main consumption patterns for fresh meat in China include hot-fresh meat, chilled-fresh meat, and frozen meat. While hot-fresh meat accounts for 60% of market share in China, the trend has been shifting towards more chilled-fresh meat.

  • Processed meat products are composed of large varieties and categories in China, and some of the Chinese traditional meat products symbolize native characteristics, are not well developed, and require further standardization and industrialization.

  • The pre-slaughter management and aging process of fresh meat is not performed well, resulting in inferior meat quality, and meat safety still remains a major concern for the meat industry in China.


China has a long history of livestock production for meat and meat products dating back to the prehistoric era about 7,000 yr ago (Ge and Ma, 2002). In the Yin Dynasty (1556–1046 BC), meat of pig, sheep, cattle, and even dog were served as precious gifts for the nobles and the royal family. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), there was a large growth in the preparation of various meat products such as cured meat, sauced meat, and yukhoe, which was raw beef meat pieces seasoned with vinegar. These primitive meat-processing technologies were reported in various Chinese ancient documents. For example, Yang Shen Zhu derived from Zhuang Zi (369–286 BC) described the details about dressing and beef cutting. The properties of inferior meat characterized by off odors were elaborated in Tian Guan section of Zhou Li (before 221 BC). Specially, a smell like rotten wood in beef meat, rank odor of sheep or goat meat, unpleasant odor like urine in dog meat, and the small polyp with a size of a grain of rice in pork meat were the indicators for deteriorated and inedible meat. Moreover, the sources of meat and meat processing and storage were discussed in an agricultural book by Qi Min Yao Shu of Bei Wei dynasty (AD 386–557) (Li, 2005). Afterward, the traditional Chinese meat products and processing technologies were further developed and founded during the following dynasties. Now, in modern times, China has had one of the highest meat production and consumption proportions in the world for more than 20 yr (Zhou et al., 2012; Zhang et al., 2017). Meat and meat products are one of the most critical constituents in the Chinese food sector and are highly associated with the consumer price index (CPI); thus, the government of China, meat companies, and consumers have been paying great attention to meat production and consumption in daily life. The most consumed meat animal species in China are pork, poultry, beef, and mutton. In 2014, total meat production of China reached 86.45 million tonnes, accounting for 27.19% of the world’s total meat production (Table 1). Production of pork and mutton meat ranks first while poultry meat and beef are ranked second and third place in the world. The production ratios among pork, poultry, beef, and mutton were 65:21:8:5 respectively, indicating that pork meat was by far the most popular meat consumed in China (Table 1).

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 1

Meat production in China and the word in 2014.

Production China (Mt) World (Mt) Proportion (%) Ranking in the world
Total meat 86.45 317.85 27.19 1
 Pork 55.39 115.31 48.03 1
Mutton 4.28 14.48 29.55 1
Poultry 18.18 112.93 16.09 2
 Beef 6.90 68.40 10.08 3
Data adapted from FAO (, where Mt stands for million tonnes.

Definition of Meat in China

Generally, the term “meat” refers to all edible animal tissues that are suitable as a human food in China (Zhou, 2008). There is no boundary between animal species while the meat consumed by most Chinese people is from livestock animals, poultry, and aquatic species. The livestock animals include cattle, sheep, swine, horse, camel, rabbit, and even dogs. For example, dog meat remains popular in several provinces in China and has a reputation for its delicate taste and unique flavor. For poultry, those most consumed include chicken, duck, goose, pigeon, and quail. Turkey meat is not widespread in China due to the limited production and the unacceptable flavor according to many Chinese. The aquatic species include a wide range of fishes, such as weever, catfish, and codfish as well as various shellfish including crab, shrimp, and sea cucumber. A strict definition of meat is that consisting of skeletal muscle and fat with associated tissues including connective tissues, nerves, blood vessels, skin, and bones (Zhou, 2008). Commercially, meat refers to those components derived from the carcass of animals post-slaughter, following the removal of the head, tail, blood, feet, and offal. However, blood, head, tail, feet, and offal such as hearts, liver, and kidney are termed with the special word “xiashui” instead of meat within the Chinese concept, and these products are very popular among Chinese consumers. Skeletal muscle is the principal component of meat, and thus, the edible quality and the processing ability of meat largely depend on the properties of skeletal muscle (Zhou, 2008). Our research in meat science has mainly focused on the skeletal muscle to achieve meat with the desired qualities for consumers including tenderness, water-holding capacity, color, and flavor.

Fresh Meat Constitution in China

Fresh meat in China can be divided into hot-fresh meat, chilled-fresh meat, and frozen meat based on the markets and its consumption style (Zhou, 2008). Hot-fresh meat is derived from recently slaughtered animals of which carcasses are directly delivered to the local markets for sale on the same day. In China, such markets are mainly scattered throughout small cities, towns, and villages. In terms of traditional Chinese concepts, consumers think that hot-fresh meat has the advantage of a high freshness along with a pink color and a delicious taste (Figure 1a and 1d). However, the hot-fresh meat is also associated with the disadvantages of often being less tender and having potential safety concerns in terms of microbial contamination. Chilled-fresh meat refers to that obtained from carcasses that were immediately cooled to stabilize the temperature within the range of 0 ∼ 4°C within 24 h post-slaughter and also that have maintained this temperature during processing, transport, and through to purchase by the consumer. Compared with hot-fresh meat, chilled-fresh meat is likely to be more hygienic due to the inhibition of microbial growth and more tender because of the extensive aging process (Figure 1b and 1e). The chilled-fresh meat sector is gradually maturing in urban cities and shares growing proportions in medium and large cities in China. Frozen meat is post-slaughtered meat that is frozen at a temperature of –15 ∼ –20°C after chilling and generally stored at –18°C (Figure 1c and 1f). This facilitates long-term transport and export, and thus it accounts for a high ratio in the market. The hot-fresh meat accounts for 60% of market share in China while the proportion of chilled-fresh meat and frozen meat only have 25% and 15% of market share, respectively. However, the trend in fresh meat consumption in China has been changing from hot-fresh meat to frozen meat and, subsequently, from frozen meat to chilled-fresh meat (Zhou et al., 2012). It is expected that the share of chilled-fresh meat will increase in parallel with the change of consumer’s knowledge and the fast pace of urbanization in China.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Selling mode of hot-fresh meat (a), chilled-fresh meat (b), and frozen meat (c) in China and representations of meat appearance of individual hot-fresh meat (d), chilled-fresh meat (e), and frozen meat (f).


Processed Meat Product in China

Currently, only 18% of fresh meat is processed to meat products in China, suggesting that most Chinese people would prefer to consume fresh meat instead of the processed meat products, despite other factors such as price and the market. As defined by GB/T 26604–2011 (National Classification Standard for meat products of China), processed meat products refer to the raw or cooked meats that utilize livestock and poultry meat or their edible by-products as main ingredient, adding or not adding food accessories, to be processed by a series of cooking technologies including curing, drying, saucing, spicing, steaming, stewing, smoking, roasting, baking, frying, shaping, fermenting, or preparing. Thus, based on those processing technologies, the meat products could be classified into sausage products, ham products, cured products, sauce pickled products, smoked and roasted products, dried products, deep-fried products, prepared meat products, and others such as meat jelly (GB/T 26604–2011). There are more than 500 kinds of processed meat products in Chinese markets, and most of them are local specialties with native area characteristic like Jinhua ham (Figure 2a), Guangdong sausage (Figure 2b), Dezhou chicken (Figure 2c), Nanjing dried salted duck (Figure 2d), Inner Mongolia dried beef (Figure 2e), and Peking duck (Figure 2f). Most of those traditional products have not been industrialized well due to the inadequate standardized processing, which results in difficulties in safety control, low consistency in product quality, and high amounts of salt and nitrite or nitrate (Zhou et al., 2012). Even the processing technology of some traditional meat products is mainly based on experience with the process being delivered by master to student. The China meat industry and researchers have accepted that the processing procedure for traditional meat products should be commercialized, modernized, and standardized. Nowadays, as meat research develops on those traditional meat products to modify processing that accommodates industrial production and explores their underlying mechanism for their unique quality, some featured meat products are beginning the standardization and industrialization of the process. For example, Jinhua ham, with an attractive color, unique flavor, and bamboo leaf-like shape is very popular in China. The proteolytic action of enzymes in Jinhua ham is found to be responsible for its unique flavor and multi-functionality such as antioxidant capacity by peptides (Xing et al., 2016; Zhou and Zhao, 2007). With this knowledge, the Jinhua ham processing could be shortened to 3–6 mo using modern manufacturing conditions compared with 8–10 mo in traditional processing in small workshops.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Representative image of Chinese traditional meat product: Jinhua Ham (a), Guangdong sausage (b), Dezhou chicken (c), Nanjing dried salted duck (d), Inner Mongolia dried beef (e), and Peking duck (f).


Meat Safety and Quality

Meat quality and safety represent the most challenging areas of meat production and consumption in China. Regarding meat quality, water-holding capacity is the major concern for the pork and poultry industries while tenderness is the most considered factor for beef and sheep meat quality. To achieve the desired meat quality, the general average aging periods for chilled pork, beef, and sheep are 3–5 d, 10–14 d, and 5–7 d in many developed countries, respectively. However, the government has not issued any strict regulations for the standards for chilled meat. Most chilled beef produced in many Chinese plants have not been effectively aged, receiving only a 1- to 2-d aging process before retail sale, which would have limited effects on tenderness improvement (Zhou et al., 2006). In addition, inappropriate manipulation of pre-slaughter management can increase the occurrence of inferior meat quality, including pale, soft, and exudative (PSE) and dark, firm, and dry (DFD) meat. Such inferior quality not only results in commercial losses, but also consumer dissatisfaction. For decades, meat safety has been a major focus of government, meat enterprises, markets, and consumers, but there still remains many safety issues for the meat industry. The major concerns of meat safety in China are the presence of antibiotic residues, contamination during transport, microbiology contamination, illegal use of additives in feed and medicine, addition of toxic ingredients, and toxic residues from the environment and the processing procedure (Zhou et al., 2012). To guarantee the safety of meat and meat products, the government of China issued a food safety law in 2008 that specifies the exceptions that could not be used as meat-processing material, including livestock, poultry, aquatic animals that died from illness, poison, or dysoemia and forbids selling unquarantined meat and unqualified meat products in the market. However, meat safety issues still occasionally emerge. For example, use of an overdose of clenbuterol to accelerate lean muscle growth is banned for animal feeds in China because large amounts of clenbuterol residue in meat could cause illness, including heart palpitations, muscle tremors, nervousness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and even death. Incidents related to the presence of clenbuterol residues in meat have often been reported, including more than 1700 persons being ill in 2007 (Hong, 2007).


China has a long history in meat production and consumption and presently is one of the largest producers and consumers of meat globally. The general meat term refers to the all of the edible animal tissues that can act as human food, ranging from livestock, poultry, and aquatic species. Essentially, meat is the skeletal muscle and fat, together with associated tissues, including connected tissue, nerves, blood vessels, skin, and bones. Hot-fresh meat, chilled-fresh meat, and frozen meat are the three main sectors of fresh meat marketing for consumption in China. The most arduous mission presently is to achieve high quality meat and to guarantee meat safety. More effort needs to be applied in the areas of regulation and standardization of meat production by integrating the government’s promulgation of law, meat industrial standards, and consumers’ awareness.

Rui Liu is a doctoral candidate in Food Science and Technology at Nanjing Agricultural University. He received a bachelor’s degree from Anhui Agricultural University in 2009. Now, he is acting as a joint Ph.D. student in the Meat Science Lab of Iowa State University. His main research focuses on nitric oxide and protein S-nitrosylation on meat quality and biochemical changes in postmortem aging process.

Dr. Guanghong Zhou is a Professor in Food Science and Technology at Nanjing Agricultural University. Currently, he is the President of Nanjing Agricultural University, Vice Chairman of Global Alliance for Agriculture and Life Science in Higher Education, Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Association of Animal Products Processing, and Vice President of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology. He received a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from North West Agriculture and Forestry University in 1982, master’s degree in Meat Science from the University of Nottingham in 1987, and a Ph.D. from Nanjing Agricultural University in 1991. His research mainly focuses on the meat quality and safety control and processing technologies in meat and meant products.

Lujuan Xing is a doctoral candidate in Food Science and Technology at Nanjing Agricultural University. She received bachelor degree from Shandong Normal University in 2009. Her main research focuses on the functional peptides purified from the dry-cured hams and its cell protective effects.

Dr. Wangang Zhang is a Professor in Food Science and Technology at Nanjing Agricultural University. He received his bachelor and master’s degrees from China Agricultural University in 2001 and 2004, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 2009. His research mainly focuses on investigating the biochemical factors, particularly in structure and function of proteins, contributing to the quality of meat and meat products. He has been the Associate Editor of Meat Science since 2015 and the Associate Editor of Chinese Journal of Animal Science since 2016.




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