China’s Meatless Revolution

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As African Swine Fever decimates China’s pork supplies, and scientists continue to proclaim the current consumption rate of meat unsustainable, entrepreneurs have rushed to fill a new demand for artificial meat substitutes. China has birthed ambitious startups for this market, including Whole Perfect Food, Jinzi Ham, Zhenmeat, and Starfield. They are competing with US companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and JUST, who are also intent on satisfying China’s significant demand for meat substitutes. Director of the China Meat Food Research Center Wang Shouwei announced last week that new national classification standards for plant-based meat are under development.

China is far and away the leading consumer of meat worldwide. The average Chinese person eats roughly 63 kilograms of meat a year. The Ministry of Health released revised dietary guidelines in 2016, recommending a drastic reduction in meat consumption to between 14 kilograms and 27 kilograms annually. Chinese people consume about 50% of pork globally, and 28% of all meat. As a result, Asia is fastest becoming largest the protein substitute market in the world. Worldwide, the current annual market for alternative protein totaled $4.6 billion, and is projected to grow to $6.4 billion by 2023 according to research from Market and Markets. Jinzi Ham, a Zhejiang-based company, saw a 50% increase in its share price after it announced the production of plant-based meat in cooperation with DuPont’s Danisco (China) Investment. Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown addressed the Asian market’s prominence during the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan last year, commenting, “Asia in general and China in particular are essential markets for us.”

While the investment of American companies in plant-based meat is largely in response to consumers increased sensitivity about the carbon-intensive nature of traditional meat production, Chinese consumers see the potential health benefits of a plant-based diet. Recently, 73% of Chinese consumers polled said they are ready to pay extra for food deemed healthier. In addition, in part due to the legacy of China’s one child policy, the overall population is aging. By 2050, it is expected that more than 30% of China’s population will be aged over 60, leading to an even larger proportion of health-conscious consumers. The majority of China’s meat products are imported, and given the currently turbulent geopolitical climate, plant-based meat alternatives will increase China’s self sufficiency, and shine a positive light on the industry in the eyes of regulators.

A trade group called the China Plant Based Food Alliance has been working to make more plant-based foods a part of Chinese dietary norms. The group was formed as a joint effort between the State Food and Nutrition Consultant Committee (SFNCC) and the Advisory Committee on Nutrition Guidance (ACNG). With significant government support, their goal is to help shift public policy toward creating a more sustainable food system for the future.

While American protein alternatives focus mostly on plant-based burgers, the Chinese market seeks to provide a wide range of alternative proteins with a specific interest in pork substitutes. Starfield, a Beijing-based startup, uses alternative meat in mooncakes, a typical Chinese snack. JUST has teamed up with Alibaba’s Tmall and JD.com to sell their faux egg product created using mung bean, emphasizing the need for companies in this space to pursue creative food solutions.

Whole Perfect Food, a Shenzhen-based company founded in 1993, sits at the forefront of Chinese alternative foods. The company has signed agreements with Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets, and Tencent-backed Yonghui Superstores. The company produces over 300 products ranging from faux oyster sauce, bacon and abalone to burgers and sausages. Whole Perfect Food continues research and development on soy isolates protein, which contrasts with much of the pea isolate used in Western plant-based meat.

While it will take time to see if plant-based meat can satisfy Chinese palettes, the widespread adoption of these foodstuffs is extremely attractive to international investors, given the potential for massive demand. Following an oft-repeated narrative, the alternative protein market could very well be the next battleground between foreign enterprises and Chinese domestic champions. The effort to win over consumer’s hearts and mouths will come down to a blend of product innovation and the ability to localize for Chinese cuisine.