The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節, also known as the Moon Festival) is just around the corner, falling on September 22 this year. Along with a litany of other traditions, which differ depending on location and family, that take place on this day, perhaps the best-known is the sharing of mooncakes -- dense pastries generally filled with lotus seed paste and containing anything from red bean to preserved duck egg yolks and ham. Nothing if not an acquired taste, a box of mooncakes usually runs for the equivalent of US$5-10 to "the sky's the limit," as -- like any product on the market nowadays -- even the humble mooncake has gotten a high-end makeover in mainland China.
Though the concept of the "luxury mooncake" isn't all that new, with mooncakes stuffed with rare and expensive delicacies having existed in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Greater China region for years, only in the last 10 or 15 years have they really hit the scene in the mainland. Growing in popularity along with the number of middle- and upper-middle class Chinese, pricey mooncakes -- selling for as much as 5-10x more than those made by local bakeries -- have even been created by foreign brands like Haagen-Dazs, Starbucks, and hoteliers like the St. Regis, Hilton and Mandarin Oriental. As Luxuo reports today, this year the Swiss chocolatier Lindt has gotten in on the action as well this year, producing a line of luxury mooncakes for Coco at the Mira in Hong Kong.
Not everyone is convinced that the high-end mooncake is always such a good thing, however. With prices for mooncakes with exotic fillings like abalone skyrocketing this year, and unclear safety and price standards in place, some in China are worried that we might be seeing something of a "mooncake bubble" forming. While this is -- of course -- less important than potential housing or financial bubbles, the discussion going on in the Chinese-language media sheds interesting light on a phenomenon completely alien to most people outside of China.
From CFI (translation by Jing Daily team):
This year we're seeing even more "delicacy" mooncakes pouring into the Mid-Autumn Festival market. Recently a reporter discovered that the number of high-end mooncakes produced last year had more than doubled, and mooncakes filled with abalone or shark fin have now become somewhat mainstream. But as these luxury mooncakes have begun to seize the high-end market, some people have become suspicious whether there's actually value for money.
With the Mid-Autumn Festival approaching, [the Chinese bakery chain] Holiland launched a 1.6 kg mooncake gift box that retails for as much as 999 yuan (US$147). The gift box itself isn't the same wooden or metal box that was popular last year, but the fillings are exceptional: abalone, shark fin, Yunnan ham and so forth. Additionally, Royal Cake's "classic tribute" mooncake gift box went on sale for 688 yuan ($101), with this reporter finding that the fillings included abalone, shark fin, French-style foie gras, top-quality bird's nest, caterpillar fungus and other highly expensive ingredients.
As a worker at Royal Cake told me, "high-end fillings like abalone and shark fin were introduced this year in order to address the demand for high-quality ingredients and occupy that market niche."
It's been reported that the National Development and Reform Commission and other departments released a joint announcement this July that looks to set better standards for the pricing, quality control, packaging and bundling of mooncakes. These standards would require manufacturers to cut down on excessive packaging and make sure the retail price of the gift boxes isn't significantly more than the cakes themselves. After repeated demands by the Chinese government for manufacturers to halt excessive packaging, the question of how to capture more high-end mooncake market share is a question that all of the country's heavyweights must face.
Insider analysis has found that there are two reasons why we're seeing more high-end mooncakes being released this year: the first is greater consumer demand, and the second is the formal implementation of the restrictions on mooncake packaging. Since excessive luxury packaging of high-end mooncakes will be greatly restricted this year -- and profit margins will be squeezed -- many companies will fill mooncakes with ingredients like abalone, bird's nest, shark fin and other delicacies in order to dramatically raise the retail price of their products and maintain higher profits.
Although more manufacturers are introducing delicacy-packed mooncakes into their product lines this year, as the article -- and several others -- goes on to point out, no formal standards currently exist in China stipulating the amount of a given ingredient manufacturers need to use in order to market their mooncake as "high-end." This, naturally, bothers some consumers:
"How much abalone does a mooncake have to have in order to call itself 'abalone mooncake'?" asked Ms. Liu Xiaodong, who went on to say that high-end mooncakes cost far more than run-of-the-mill mooncakes but there's no guarantee that the materials used are actually high-quality. Does one mooncake contain a whole abalone, or just a little bit of diced abalone? This is unclear.
Ms. Liu added that she thinks high-end mooncakes aren't worth the money in the end, because the price isn't in line with the cost of the raw materials and is unrealistically inflated.
How much abalone, shark fin, bird's nest and other ingredients are used in a mooncake? According to a bakery manager, the main filling of a given mooncake account for no less than 8% of the total mass, but high-end fillings like Yunnan ham should account for about 35%, although this differs based on manufacturer.
So does China have regulations on the amount of a certain filling that must be used in mooncakes? This reporter took a look at the country regulation #GB19855-2005, which was put into effect in June of 2006. However, these standards are lax and unclear towards the specific amount of a given ingredient that must be used in a mooncake.
If demand for these high-priced mooncakes continues to grow, and domestic manufacturers continue to respond to growing demand and increased regulation of packaging by kicking up prices at an unrealistic rate, we'll likely see even more consumer pushback in coming years -- particularly if the Chinese government fails to put in place specific regulations on not just superficial issues like packaging and bundling of mooncakes but also their fillings. While the gravity of this issue pales in comparison to other issues like food safety regulation, considering more domestic manufacturers are hawking mooncakes filled (at least in part) with hot-button ingredients like shark fin -- towards which there has been a backlash in Hong Kong recently -- it's definitely a something to keep an eye on.