Do ‘Cultural Barriers’ Pose Advantages for Chinese Plant-based Meat Companies?
China is not only the world’s most populous nation but also the biggest consumer of meat. Demand is skyrocketing as the country’s economy continues to grow, although at a slower rate.
Global use of animals in food production has brought us to the verge of environmental catastrophe. The destructive impact of animal agriculture on the environment far exceeds that of other food sources and technologies on Earth. The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane and rocket ship combined. Animal agriculture pollutes and consumes more water than any other industry.
Producing protein-rich food products directly from plants instead of poultry has tremendous individual and public health benefits such as reducing hypertension and diabetes and decreasing the threats of antibiotic resistance, superbugs, influenza and other pandemics.
Accordingly, the Chinese government outlined a policy to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50% by 2030. New dietary guidelines have been drawn up by China’s Ministry of Health. It is recommended that the nation’s 1.3 billion population should consume between 40g to 75g of meat per person each day, which equals to approximately 20 kg per person per year – currently China’s per capita consumption is almost triple this amount.
The measures, scheduled to be updated every 10 years, are designed to improve public health but also to provide a significant cut to greenhouse gas emissions.
Encouraged by this policy and the rising demand for meat products in China, many foreign and domestic plant-based meat producers are seeking alternative ways to take over the Chinese market.
“China is well positioned to be a world leader in the shift to a sustainable food system,” said Impossible Foods’ CEO and Founder Dr. Patrick Brown. “Impossible Foods wants to partner with China to create the world’s most resilient, secure and sustainable food system: a model for other nations. By transitioning to plant-based meat, China can help boost quality of life for everyone, avert biodiversity collapse and reduce the impact of global warming.”
While foreign plant-based meat producers see China as a perfect market for their product, domestic ones don’t think so.
Domestic producers believe the cultural barrier will provide the upper hand to them in Chinese market. Zhou Qiyu, the marketing manager at Whole Perfect Food – a Chinese plant-based meat producing company – said the major obstacle facing foreign companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods would be “localizing their product offerings and understanding the Chinese consumer.”
In Chinese cuisine, meat is often prepared differently from western methods. For instance, many people prefer to eat it off the bone. Zhenmeat, a plant-based meat start-up in Beijing, is using 3-D printers to produce meat alternatives that contain bones, muscle and other structural elements that Chinese consumers expect in their dishes.
Moreover, personal accounts show dissatisfaction with some of the new products on offer. A Chinese Buddhist who arrived at VeggieWorld trade show, in Beijing in November 2019, found ‘Beyond Meat’ served burgers and sausages. After examining the long ingredient list on the burger package, she could not tell whether the product complied with the dietary laws of Buddhism, which forbid certain spices and seasonings. “Foreign companies don’t understand our Chinese culture,” she told South China Morning Post.
Therefore, unlike Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, most Chinese companies are not making burgers. Instead they are focusing on local dishes such as dumplings, mooncakes or meatballs, and opting for pork rather than beef flavors in recognition of local palates.
Yet both domestic and foreign companies are hopeful of their business in China for couple of reasons. First, a devastating pig disease and the bruising China-US trade war that have combined to push up meat prices. Second, the rising environmental awareness of millennials. Last, government policies regarding environmental protection.
However, Chinese consumers are not only interested in whether these products are for their traditional tastes, but are also interested in whether the products will cause any health problems.
Chinese perceptions of plant-based meat products are rather negative, even if the genetically modified soy gets approval. President Xi Jinping has called genetically modified crops a national priority, and 90 percent of scientists agree that genetically modified organisms are safe to eat.
Still, Chinese consumers and even state-run media outlets have often expressed concerns about the safety of genetic engineering.
Even so, after so many years of testing, so many years of experiments, Chinese consumers still feel uncertain about whether what they eat is going to cause problems, according to Cong Cao, a professor at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo who has studied the reception of G.M.O.s in China.
Regardless of whether they are imported or locally produced, it seems like there is still time for plant-based meat products to become a trend among Chinese consumers.