(Aug. 18) Freer markets in China have created a powerful economic barometer there: the consumer.

As their buying choices multiply, Chinese consumers are broadening their produce horizons. A new study suggests U.S. purveyors of fresh fruits and vegetables would be wise to pay attention — that horizon stretches far beyond China’s borders.

The proliferation of grocery stores and restaurants, aggressive marketing and creative packaging all point to the influence consumers have on the Chinese food industry, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Produce is no exception.

“The produce industry is growing and changing rapidly,” said Fred Gale, an ERS senior economist and the report’s author. “Production is being done on a larger scale and is becoming centralized and commercialized. Farmers are frequently growing under contract, and distribution channels are becoming more sophisticated.”

Chinese consumers eat about the same amount of vegetables as they did a decade ago, but they’re not eating the same things, Gale said. Chinese eat less Chinese cabbage and fewer onions and other traditional staples. More expensive items such as green beans, mushrooms and greens — many of them imported — are becoming more popular.

Fresh fruit consumption is up in China. Imported fruit is commonly available in supermarkets, Gale said, but it is often priced out of many consumers’ reach. Apples, grapes and citrus are among the hot fruit imports.

“It remains largely a niche market,” Gale said.

While U.S. growers stand to gain from increased Chinese consumer demand for produce, they also need to beware, Gale said. Higher quality and safety standards, improved marketing and better knowledge of world markets are making China a more aggressive exporter.