Sole food: could chicken feet to China be Britain's next big export?

Environment Secretary spots a gap in the market for 'phoenix claws'

Steady your stomach for Britain's unlikely new exports growth industry: chicken feet discarded by British factories could soon be winging their way to supermarket shelves in China.

During trade talks in China this week, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, signalled his intention for British poultry producers to export chicken feet to the country, where they are a highly sought-after delicacy, served hot in soup or cold as a handy bar snack.

On a visit to a Tesco supermarket in the centre of Shanghai on the second day of his trade mission, Mr Paterson showed a surprise interest in feng zhao, or "phoenix claws" as they are known in China.

"I was looking out for chicken feet which are a delicacy over here," he wrote in his tour diary, published on his department's website.

"The store manager said he has to bring them from Brazil because he can't get enough of them. What is a wasted by-product of the poultry industry in the UK can be sold here, adding value. I immediately told him about the poultry producer from Northern Ireland who produces nine million chicken feet a week and has to pay to dispose of them. We were able to put them in touch with each other."

Chicken feet, highly valued for their unique texture, can be served in a variety of ways. Marinated in soy sauce they make a popular bar snack, while in Hong Kong they are usually deep fried and steamed before being stewed in black bean sauce. They can be bought packaged and ready to eat at most Chinese grocery shops.

More than 850 million chickens are processed in British factories every year. Most of their 1.7 billion feet are rendered into pet food, along with other unwanted body parts such as heads, livers and gizzards. But now there are hopes that Mr Paterson's intervention could lead to the poultry industry winning a coveted licence to trade with China, whose poultry consumers are less fussy than Europeans.

The UK already exports chicken feet to other Asian markets including Thailand and Hong Kong, and recently struck a £50m deal to export pig body parts to China, where the tail, ears, brain and trotters of a pig are all eaten. Any trade deal on poultry could be even more profitable. In 2008, the US exported $677m of chicken to China with chicken feet making up about half the value. China imported £36bn worth of food last year. British trade with the world's second-largest economy could be worth £100bn by 2015, Mr Paterson said.

About 30 million chicken feet are removed from carcasses in British factories every week. "The feet are removed fairly early in the process," said Robert Smith, from the meat processing company Vion.

"They will go into trays or bins, all of which are appropriately handled. Depending on the plant, chicken breast goes to the left and the drumsticks to the right. The left over feet will go for export or rendering into pet food."

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm whether or not the Secretary of State had tasted chicken feet during his visit to China.

Toe-lickin' good: Spicy hot chicken feet

Ingredients 1kg chicken feet; 150ml rice wine; 4 spring onions; 4cm piece ginger; 100g hot bean sauce

1 Clip claws and wash feet. Fry for 3 minutes until golden. Leave in water for 2 hours.

2 Place 2 litres water, 80ml rice wine, spring onions, ginger and chicken feet in a saucepan. Cover and bring to the boil. Cook for 90 minutes, then strain.

3 Combine hot bean sauce, 2 tbsp oil, 2 tbsp rice wine in wok. Bring to boil, lower heat to medium. Add chicken feet, cook until feet are warmed through.

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