Does plant-based meat have a future in China?

Business & Technology

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are in China, competing against a number of ambitious Chinese startups that make plant-based meats. But marketing food products to a nation of gourmets is tricky.

illustration of a burger with meatless meat
Illustration by Alex Santafe

Last month, the actress Gabrielle Guan (关晓彤 Guān Xiǎotóng), whose popularity in China has earned her the title “the Nation’s Daughter” (国民闺女), released a promo video (in Chinese) for a new food brand.

“This here is Zhiai Shenghuo’s plant-based meat dumpling, which basically means I don’t need to worry about eating too much,” she said. “It’s not fattening — and very nutritious and healthy.”

For observers outside China, it was an unremarkable advertisement. But Chinese netizens were peeved. “Why are you promoting something even you aren’t prepared to eat?” wrote one aggrieved user, pointing out that Guan appeared not to swallow the dumpling in the footage. Millions more joined the chorus of opprobrium and, in just two days, the phrase “plant-based meats” (or zhíwùròu 植物肉 in Chinese) had inundated the Chinese internet. It topped the list of hot searches on Weibo (in Chinese) with 600 million views, which amounts to almost every other person in China.

The cause célèbre, it turned out, had nothing to do with Guan. All across Chinese media, users asked probing questions not about Guan, but about the product she had plugged. “Plant-based meat, it’s expensive and difficult to eat, so why is everyone rushing to it?” asked a user on Zhihu (in Chinese). “Is there a difference between plant-based and artificial meat?” asked another (in Chinese). Even Xinhua, China’s state-backed media known for austere précis on state affairs, published an explainer (in Chinese) with a title that belied the paper’s own befuddlement: “Is plant-based meat a vegetable or a meat?”

A huge market for Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, if they can beat their Chinese competitors

The online questions come at a time when a growing number of companies are looking at the enormous market for meat in China — a country that consumes half of the world’s pork — and are hoping to capture some of it with vegetarian meat alternatives. This new class of food has already made significant headway in China’s first-tier cities led primarily by Western brands. U.S.-based Beyond Meat debuted in mainland China in April 2020 with a splashy collaboration with Starbucks. It has expanded rapidly since, selling its fake-meat patties at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, and constructing new production facilities just outside Shanghai to match consumer demand. Beyond Meat’s biggest rival, Impossible Foods, arrived in Hong Kong in October and is currently awaiting regulatory permission to enter the mainland. “China is a huge market for us and entirely essential to create a real sustainable food system,” said an Impossible Foods executive. Legacy food brands such as Swiss food giant Nestlé also announced plans to build its first plant-based food factory in northern Tianjin last May.

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The forces carrying the meatless meat movement are wide-ranging: They include meat shortages from disease outbreaks, state-backed sustainability initiatives, and the growing embrace of healthier lifestyles among China’s middle class. Though estimates differ (in Chinese), China’s plant-based meat industry is expected to be a $13 billion industry by 2023, according to the consultancy Euromonitor (in Chinese).

Domestic brands have also kept apace. The Hong Kong plant-based meat startup OmniFoods, founded in 2018, established a presence on the mainland just a year later with the opening of its flagship Tmall store. Since then, it has partnered with established hotels and restaurants, even launching its own cafe in Shanghai’s French Concession. Starfield, another domestic plant-based meat maker, recently attracted tens of millions of dollars (in Chinese) in funding last year, backed by Impossible Foods investor New Corp Capital. The startup is working with other domestic consumer brands such as HEYTEA to roll out plant-based meat products. Zhenmeat, another domestic player, also completed (in Chinese) a seed round last summer.

While international brands are leaning on partnerships with big-name retailers such as Starbucks and KFC, domestic brands seem to be wooing younger consumers from the bottom up. On Little Red Book and short-video app Douyin, one can find advertisements for Zhiai Shenghuo, the brand behind the Guan controversy, pushed by young female bloggers who claim their dumplings can “slim you down.” Celebrity promotions, as evinced by the Guan incident, seem to be highly polarizing for the plant-based meat industry: an indication that the behavioral changes fake meat businesses hope to engender go to the very root of some Chinese habits and lifestyles.

Do Chinese brands know Chinese taste buds better?

For all the industry’s talk of a plant-based revolution, the numbers are not yet convincing. During the “618” national sales event last week — similar to “Black Friday” in the U.S. — plant-based meat brands flopped on Tmall, China’s signature online marketplace. Zhiai Shenghuo’s flagship dumplings sold less than 200 items. Nestlé’s own plant-based meat brand reached mere thousands. Compared with Oatly, another health-conscious consumer brand, which sold over 20,000 units in the same period, the plant-based meat industry seems miniscule.

Nevertheless, the lack of sales might just mean that it’s still too early to tell. A sentiment analysis (in Chinese) — which measures emotional valences pertaining to certain topics — on Weibo by an analytics firm found that the phrase “plant-based meat” still has a neutral connotation. Chinese consumers haven’t made up their minds yet, so brands still have lots of room to sway public opinion for better or worse.

The factor most likely to sway opinion for the better is the most visceral: taste. Until recently, Western brands spent most of their R&D on plant-based steaks and burger patties. Now, as production becomes increasingly tied up with the Chinese economy, many brands are pivoting to cater to Chinese taste buds. Unsurprisingly, the domestic brands are better at this. While Beyond Meat is working to localize their products, rolling out a minced pork item, it has less versatility than OmniFoods’ OmniPork, which can be found in a variety of Chinese dishes such as meatballs for hotpot, meat strips for stir-fry, or filling for dumplings. Zhenmeat has even rolled out a plant-based shrimp.

Yet even Chinese brands still have a ways to go. On the OmniPork’s Tmall comment section (in Chinese), buyers overwhelmingly describe the taste in lukewarm terms: “so so,” “not bad,” “average.” A few commenters noted that vegetarian chicken — a more traditional Chinese meat alternative made of soybeans — still tasted better.

Price is also a significant issue. The OmniPork packet for mapo tofu, a traditional Chinese dish, sells for 203 yuan ($31.44) on Tmall, while a mapo tofu sauce pack with real pork can sell for as cheap as 10 yuan ($1.55). The “American chutney roll” at Starbucks sold with Beyond Meat ingredients currently costs 59 yuan ($9.14), 50% more than a 39 yuan ($6.04) alternative with real meat.

Can the government create a market by fiat?

Price and taste are important for consumers, but in China, it’s not just consumers who have the say in business success. Government favoritism is another path to fortune. Entire sectors from batteries to mobile payments to electric vehicles have soared in China thanks to the conspicuous hand of the state. David Yeung, the founder of OmniFoods, told TIME in January that it’s becoming easier to convince bureaucrats that his sector should be in the running for state subsidies. “It’s no secret that meat production is infinitely risky,” Yeung said. “Disease and extreme climate issues are sadly not going to change unless we make a change first.”

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China has witnessed the effect of disease on food supply firsthand with a swine fever outbreak that felled its pork market last year. Finding alternative protein sources may also become a crucial component to meeting Beijing’s carbon-neutrality targets. (Livestock farming is notoriously carbon intensive, producing 20% to 50% of all man-made greenhouse gases.) The concerns have already led the government, back in 2016, to publish guidelines to cut meat consumption in half by 2030.

Self-reliance and independence from sources of instability — disease and extreme climate risks — are top of mind for China’s top leader, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. When examining the environmental impact of food waste last year, Xi urged his compatriots to “maintain a sense of crisis on food security.” These structural challenges, if severe enough, might convince Beijing to call some vegan friends. They are waiting by the phone.