BEIJING, June 30 (Reuters) - China's top online retailers and U.S. superstore giant Walmart are scrambling to satisfy the voracious appetites of consumers excited about the first American beef to arrive in the world's most populous nation in 14 years.
"I am a frequent buyer of steak so I can tell the quality by its color and marbling," said one woman on Thursday at a Sam's Club store in Beijing owned by Walmart. She selected a $31.13 pack of newly arrived U.S. steak over her usual choice from Australia.
"This looks tasty, worth a try," she said, declining to be named. Other shoppers at the store said imported beef was superior in quality and worth its hefty price.
Beef is the fastest-growing meat sector in China, outstripping stagnant demand for more widely eaten pork, with consumers seeking healthier sources of protein and adopting Western eating habits.
China's beef imports hit $2.6 billion last year, making it the world's fastest-growing overseas market for the meat. Consumer excitement about the lifting of a 2003 ban due to a scare over mad cow disease looks set to help U.S. beef grab a significant share of that demand.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is in Beijing to mark the return of U.S. beef to China. Perdue and U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad on Friday met with Chinese Agriculture Minister Han Changfu and Vice Premier Wang Yang.
Branstad, who arrived in the capital this week to take up his post, said he hoped the return of U.S. beef would be one of several deals agreed under the 100-day trade talks between the world's top two economies.
Other deals he would like to see signed would be to allow imports of more varieties of U.S. genetically modified corn and soybean and to finalize a deal on letting U.S. rice into the country.
"We're very hopeful that what's been worked out so far is just the beginning of a significant growth in our trade relationship," Branstad said at the meeting.
Some of the millions who buy food online are expected to join the woman in the Sam's Club store as some of the first to buy U.S. beef in China in more than a decade. Social media has been buzzing for weeks with those ready to tuck into American steak.
"American steak is delicious," said one user on China's Twitter-like Weibo service. "It doesn't have the mutton smell of domestic beef."
Womai.com, owned by food giant COFCO, said it had received more than 1,605 orders for beef from U.S. meat giant Tyson by late Wednesday. JD.com, one of the country's biggest online retailers, has started pre-sales of U.S. beef ahead of the product's availability from mid-July.
Online meat is typically around 10 percent cheaper than it is in stores, according to Euromonitor.
Imported meat accounted for more than 30 percent of JD.com's meat sales last year, with Australian beef the top category and the most searched-for item, the company said.
Still, food safety fears linger, despite Beijing's stringent import requirements.
One Sam's Club shopper, surnamed Huang, was worried about more than beautiful marbling: "We should not only stick to foreign beef. They have food safety issues, like growth hormones and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the U.S."
($1 = 6.7791 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Dominique Patton and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Tom Hogue)