The ascent of plant-based meat alternatives has reshaped menus in restaurants and fast-food chains across the US, led by a parade of high-tech burgers, nuggets, and sausages that look (and sometimes taste) like the real thing. That’s all fine and good for American consumers who gravitate toward fried foods and processed meats. But what about the 1.3 billion people living in the world’s second-biggest economy?
The two most popular US plant-based meat startups, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have expressed interest in doing business in China, following a 2016 policy that encouraged Chinese citizens to eat less meat. But the road to success there is a steep one.
Culinary traditions in China are very different from those in the US. A person is more likely to find a diner leaning over a bowl of steamed dumplings or eating meat off a bone than nibbling at the edges of a hamburger or slicing into a sausage. US companies still haven’t put those types of products on the market. But a crop of homegrown Chinese companies—there are five getting the most attention—stand to pose significant competition for any starry-eyed western interlopers.
In Beijing, a company called Zhenmeat is working to 3D print bones for their meat alternatives. Zhenmeat, which hopes to raise some $2 million in capital this year, currently makes 100% plant-based meat products based on pea protein, which so far have gone into savory moon cakes. The plant-based mincemeat can also be used to make dumplings and meatballs, the co-founder of the company, Vincent Lu, has said.
Another noteworthy company is Shenzhen-based Whole Perfect Food, which already brings in close to $44.6 million each year from its sales of faux oyster sauce, veggie bacon, and plant-based abalone, a shellfish. In March 2019, the company met the requirements to sell its plant-based meat products in China-based Wal-Mart stores. It began testing in at least three stores in Shenzhen.
Some media accounts describe the company’s product as tasting more bean-like than meat-like—unlike Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which get a little closer to the experience of eating flesh. Still, as more investment pours in, the quality of products across all the companies is expected to increase, rising to meet highly specific consumer expectations.
Hotpot meatballs one might find in Beijing tend to be crispy, for instance, while a Yangzhou-style one served up much further south is described as more dimply. The company Starfield partnered with Beijing Technology and Business University in 2019 to develop a bean protein-based filling for moon cakes. According to Reuters, the scientists behind that product hope to mimic meat to the point that it sounds the same when it’s deep fried.
There is another reason why companies—inside and outside China—are intrigued by the opportunity for plant-based meats in that market. The country has recently been hit by African swine fever, which has decimated the pork supply. Deadly for pigs but harmless to humans, the fever broke out in August 2018 and has only gotten worse. In all, authorities have had to cull more than 1 million pigs, which caused a shortage in meat and doubled the cost of pork.
In that environment, the potential returns on plant-based meat are enticing. The question is who will create, introduce, and successfully market the most convincing version first. “It’s been a tough, tough year because there’s been a lot of news and there are a lot of players rushing into this field,” Lu told Bloomberg. In spite of the competition, Lu says he welcomes his US counterparts into the Chinese market. Maybe they’ll draw more consumers to try their new generation of faux meats.