An advertisement for a plant-based burger made by Impossible Foods in Hong Kong.

Beyond Impossible: Is China ready for vegan meat?

Dec 16, 2020

Makers of vegan meat hope to break into the Chinese market, but in a country where meat consumption has long been a symbol of wealth, convincing consumers is an uphill battle.

There was no shortage of eager takers for the free mushroom frittatas and omelets at Future Food Studio, an outdoor pop-up at a glitzy Shanghai shopping mall in October.

But the egg dishes—all made by well-known local chefs—contained no eggs. Instead, the main ingredient was Just Egg, a plant-based alternative consisting of mung bean and legumes.

A chef cooks an omelet with Just Egg at the Future Food Studio pop-up in Shanghai.
A chef cooks an omelet with Just Egg at the Future Food Studio pop-up in Shanghai. / Photo: Mark Andrews

In recent years, the plant-based food craze has reached Asia, with international heavyweights such as Beyond Meat and Impossible expanding to the region.

Beyond is building two production facilities in China’s Zhejiang Province, with the first to achieve full-scale output by early 2021. Impossible has introduced its faux beef and pork products to the Hong Kong market, and San Francisco-based Just Egg made its debut in mainland China this year.

Producers of mock meat have been egged on by the market potential. A Euromonitor report says 60% of Chinese consumers are receptive to plant-based diets and 39% are reducing meat consumption.

“In China, the Just Egg consumer is similar in many ways to the U.S.,” says Andrew Noyes, Eat Just’s head of global communications. “They skew younger, female, higher income, and have some higher education.”

But countering that expansion are questions over actual consumer demand. In China, meat consumption has long been a symbol of wealth, and as income goes up, so has demand for meat.

In 1980, annual per-capita consumption was 14.6 kilograms, according to UN data. Caixin forecasts by 2026, it will reach 55 kilograms, up 10% from 2017 levels but still around half that of the U.S.

(Read more: China’s appetite for donkey meat is wreaking havoc in Africa)

Meeting this demand has become a problem for China. Pork is the protein of choice, but hog supplies have been hit by several outbreaks of African swine fever. Millions of pigs have either died or been culled in China since 2018.

Dwindling supplies have since led to pork prices more than doubling. October showed the first annual drop in prices in a year and a half. As a result, many people have turned their interest to substitute products.

“When I’m eating at a restaurant, I’m concerned about the source of red meat” says Fu Siru, a 30-year-old consultant in Shanghai.

Beyond Meat products on sale in California.
Beyond Meat products on sale in California. / Photo: Reuters

Health is the main reason for people’s interest, according to Joyce Xu, a spokesperson for the China Plant Based Food Alliance. Other reasons include concern for the environment and abstinence based on religion.

But in China, where policy is often top down, it might take a larger government plan to spur greater demand.

“Development in China’s meat substitution market is very different from other countries,” says Paul O’Brien, a China FMCG analyst, “in that demand has been largely precipitated by policy rather than being due to changes in consumer perception and purchasing preference.”

The government aims to reduce meat consumption by half through policies such as Healthy China 2030 and the national nutrition plan.

(Fake) pork is king

Many foreign competitors concentrate on hamburger patties, but beef is not nearly as popular as pork in China, where it makes up over half of meat consumed. Ground pork is a common filling in dumplings, and pork belly braised in soy sauce is a famous dish.

In November, Beyond launched a faux pork range specially developed for the Chinese market. Other homegrown competitors such as Z-Rou and Ominpork have also focused on pork substitutes.

“It’s created for China,” says Cynthia Zhang, co-founder and head of market expansion at Z-Rou. “You can use it in dumplings, xiaolongbao, mapo tofu, dandan noodles, and more.”

O’Brien, the analyst at China FMCG, believes homegrown competitors have a leg up because they have a better understanding of the local market, can adapt quickly to trends, and receive more favorable treatment compared to foreign companies.

“China is looking to commoditize the sector,” he says, “but the key part is to get the industry leaders on board so they can piggyback off the innovation they bring.”

Part of the battle is getting consumers on board as well, and that largely comes down to the products themselves. “Taste is still the important reason for the products to exist and thrive,” says Xu.

(Read more: A chef’s vegan take on a classic Hong Kong comfort dish)

Hong Kong-based Omnipork has had some success in the mainland market, where the Jixiang Wonton chain sells dumplings stuffed with the plant-based alternative. In its home market, Omnipork is better known for its mock luncheon meat.

By nature, plant-based meat substitutes are highly processed, as is traditional luncheon meat. But in Hong Kong, where Spam is a popular ingredient in comfort food diners, Omnipork still has a long way to go, at least in terms of convincing consumers.

“I gave it a try but didn’t really like the texture,” says Eunice Leung, who eats it with instant noodles. “I prefer the proper luncheon meat.”

“I did try Omnipork luncheon meat as it has created such a buzz in Hong Kong,” says Mabel Sieh, “but honestly, it doesn't taste anything like luncheon meat.”

Omnipork luncheon meat served with instant noodles in Hong Kong.
Omnipork luncheon meat served with instant noodles in Hong Kong. / Photo: K .Y. Cheng/SCMP

The companies seem to recognize that adapting to local Chinese tastes is key. That Beyond chose Zhejiang Province as the location of its forthcoming factories is no coincidence. So far, the plant-based meat substitute drive has been very much centered on Shanghai.

“Compared with other cities, the people in Shanghai accept foreign cultures or products because of historic reasons,” Xu says. 

That much was clear at the Future Food Studio opening, where all the nibbles were based on Western food. To get Chinese consumers interested in plant-based foods, companies will need to show the average consumer that they can use the products in a Chinese kitchen without changing their style of food and cooking.

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