Analysts are predicting that China will become the world’s biggest Cognac consumer by 2020, but French brandy exporters are currently grappling with new legislation imposed by the country's food safety authorities.
Since a scandal surrounding high levels of phthalates, or plasticizers, in local white spirit baijiu, China has clamped down on the maximum levels permitted in all wines and spirits.
The new legislation is based on studies that show that high levels of phthalates can interfere with the hormonal system in humans. They have been used in plastics to make them more flexible and harder to break, but they can also be found in food and drink products that have been packaged in plastic containers. In addition, they are detectable in soaps, shampoos, adhesives and detergents.
Lowering the permitted phthalate content of imported products has increased paperwork at China’s ports, and shipments of Cognac, in particular, have been held up or slowed down by Customs officials.
A Bordeaux laboratory, Excell, recently sounded the alarm, issuing a warning that there were delays at Chinese ports due to phthalates issues.
It said the new legislation affected “wines made in contact with plastic (tank covers, flexible pipes, pumps, seals, flexitanks, bag in box, plastic fermentors), and particularly spirits – because of their high ethanol levels which act as a solvent."
Excell said the products could be contaminated during production or transportation, "and may be prevented from sale in the short to medium term.”
Winemaking laboratories in south-west France claim they have since been swamped with worried producers anxious to get their bottles tested.
Cognac producers including Remy Martin and Frapin told local newspaper Charente Libre that their shipments have been held up at Customs “like many others,” but they stressed that their products conformed to the new legislation and were not "contaminated."
But Cognac makers may be looking more closely at their production processes since this issue emerged. One distiller told Charente Libre that brandy made recently, with modern equipment, didn’t have anything to worry about. “But for the very old eaux-de-vies, what do you do? You can never reach the threshold with the new laws.”
The Chinese media have quickly picked up on this story, suggesting that China-bound Cognacs have been contaminated by plasticizer. The French region has been quick to quash these rumors, explaining that the delays are due to Customs checks and not the contents of its containers.
On Friday, the French government even stepped in to reassure consumers that this was an administrative issue and nothing to do with contaminants, adding that this change in legislation was affecting tens of wine and spirit shipments from Bordeaux, Spain and Argentina not only Cognac.
Cognac is currently riding high in China, where consumption more than doubled between 2007 and 2011. It is projected to increase by another 60 percent between 2012 and 2016. Scaremongering in what could be its biggest market by 2020 is the last thing the region wants.
China is already the world’s biggest importer of Cognac in value terms, but the U.S. remains the biggest consumer. It imported 139 hectoliters in 2012 – far ahead of the next biggest market, Singapore, which consumed 82 hl, and China, at 69 hl.