* Malaysia could process 360,000 tonnes of beans a year by2020
* Nation wants to be centre for chocolates in Asia
By Anuradha Raghu
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Malaysia's annual cocoagrindings could rise about a fifth from current levels to360,000 tonnes by 2020, reflecting rising demand and efforts bythe Southeast Asian nation to become Asia's centre forchocolates, a senior industry official said.
Expectations for a long-term capacity increase underscoregrowing confidence among cocoa processors in Asia, whichaccounts for more than 20 percent of global grindings. Malaysiaprocessed 299,525 tonnes of cocoa beans in 2012, little changedfrom the previous year.
"The last three years, we have stabilised at about 300,000tonnes," Lee Choon Hui, director-general of the Malaysian CocoaBoard, told Reuters on the sidelines of a cocoa conference onMonday.
"The industry capacity can go up to 360,000 tonnes. There'sstill room for improvement if they want to. We want to be thechocolate centre for Asia, just like Belgium is for Europe," Leeadded.
Grinders turn cocoa beans into butter and powder, the mainingredients for chocolates.
Butter premiums have soared to their strongest since 2008in Asia and Europe, and hit eight-year highs in the UnitedStates, after last year's sluggish market and high powderinventory prompted grinders to cut capacity.
Chocolate sales normally surge in the main consumer regionsof Europe and North America during celebrations of Christmas,Valentine's Day and Easter, but demand in Asia has also risensteadily over the last few years as growing affluence has givenconsumers a taste for sweets.
Chocolate lovers worldwide are set to munch through about7.4 million tonnes of the confectionary in 2013, up nearly 2percent on a year earlier and worth about $110 billion,according to global market researcher Euromonitor International. (Writing by Lewa Pardomuan; Editing by MuralikumarAnantharaman)
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