January 18, 2023
PHNOM PENH – News of negotiations for the official export of Cambodian “edible bird’s nests” to China has spurred the construction of a flurry of new specialised cave-like buildings in the past couple of years, which are designed to attract swiftlets and encourage them to nest there, producing a sticky saliva used to make the commodity.
However, legitimate stakeholders warn that progress on talks and potential export opportunities for edible bird’s nests could be undermined by the relatively low number of these swiftlet homes that are properly registered – many of them citing quality control issues.
Consumed for its perceived health and wellbeing benefits, local edible bird’s nests are generally made from the dried saliva of the Aerodramus genus of swiftlets, which are found throughout Southeast Asia. Traditionally, the processed swiftlet nests are double boiled with rock sugar to make a delicacy known as “bird’s nest soup”.
Suy Kokthean, president of the Khmer Swiftlet Association (KSA), whose membership currently exceeds 1,000 operations – some of which manage more than one swiftlet home, estimates the number of these buildings at “more than 5,000” nationwide, and that “no more than 10 per cent” are registered with the authorities.
Investment in swiftlet homes has largely been driven in the last “two or three years” by the prospect of high prices from the populous Chinese market for the hotly-desired commodity, he told The Post on January 16, expressing the KSA’s desire for Beijing to authorise the official export of the item.
However, even after the inaugural commercial batch edible bird’s nest leaves for Chinese shores, more time would be needed for exports to reach desirably large levels, as each swiftlet farm must be registered and undergo a review for compliance with phytosanitary and other requirements, he argued.
Worse still, owners of swiftlet homes often refrain from registering to avoid taxes, he claimed, suggesting that tax breaks could prompt more registrations.
“Legal registration not only inspires confidence in businesses, but can also prop up sales to international markets, as export products require accredited sources,” he said.
He said that per-kilogramme prices for uncleaned edible bird’s nests currently hover in the $600-650 range, while cleaned ones go for $1,500-2,000. For comparison, the ranges Kokthean provided in early March were $650-700 and “between $1,600 and over $2,000”, respectively.
Vann Sovatha, owner of three swiftlet homes in Pursat province, remarked that although a price increase has proven elusive, market demand has witnessed significant growth in the past two years.
Cambodian-made edible bird’s nests are not only sold domestically, but also exported to bordering countries, he said, claiming that some even reach the Chinese market via Vietnam.
“I don’t know at what stage negotiations for export to China may have reached, but official exports will bump up prices for our edible bird’s nests,” Sovatha said, sharing that his three swiftlet homes typically yield between five and seven kilogrammes of the commodity each month.
The KSA’s Kokthean affirmed that Chinese Customs has sent paperwork regarding the export of edible bird’s nest for the Cambodian side to complete, and that the local government is keen to move the process forward.
On October 27, Chinese ambassador Wang Wentian confirmed that both countries are working to bring more Cambodian agricultural merchandise into China, such as edible bird’s nest, peppercorn, aquaculture products, “wildlife”, coconuts and “edible aquatic animals”.
The ambassador was speaking at a ceremony marking the Cambodian government’s authorisation of the direct export of fresh longan to China, more than a month after Beijing had given the final all-clear.