Plant-based meat faces backlash in China despite gaining traction

A new option, not replacement © Starfield

An innocuous video clip sparked debate on social media over plant-based meat, with suspicion about its nutritional value, cost-effectiveness and even the motives of foreign companies

A video posted recently on China’s twitter-like platform Weibo, featuring a young actress with 33m followers promoting dumplings with plant-based meat filling, unexpectedly sparked controversy. At first, Weibo users were just unhappy about her promoting food that she appeared unwilling to taste. But soon, the debate shifted to whether plant-based meat should be promoted in the country, with many dissenting voices.

Several days later, New Hope, China's largest feed manufacturer and one of the country’s largest agri-husbandry enterprises, further stoked the controversy by describing plant-based meat as inferior to real meat in terms of taste and cost. “Over time, plant-based meat will be just a niche product to satisfy the special needs of certain consumer groups and won’t affect the mainstream consumption of real meat,” the company said.

Another listed company, Jinzi Ham, which has explored opportunities in China’s plant-based meat market since 2019 and has already launched a product line, including plant-based sausages, admitted in a recent media interview that the sales volume is small and low consumer acceptance is a major obstacle. “A long period of time will be needed to educate the market in China,” the company said.

Animal meat plays an important role in China, where meat consumption was a symbol of wealth. It was only since the 1990s that meat has made it to the daily diets of more households. In 1990, Chinese people consumed only 0.64 kg of beef per capita, but the figure rose to 3.8 kg in 2018. Having experienced the scarcity of beef, many people, especially the older generations, cherish the opportunity to eat meat. 

This might partly explain why domestic plant-based meat companies prefer to describe their products as a new option instead of a replacement. Kiku Wu, CEO and founder of Chinese plant-based meat startup Starfield, said in a lengthy post on Weibo in response to the debate that Starfield has "no intention to replace real meat, but offers plant-based meat as a new option to enrich protein sources.” 

More expensive, less healthy?

Although the actress in the Weibo video said that “every 100 grams of plant-based meat contains 90% less fat but four times more protein than pork,” many were not convinced. In fact, the label of the plant-based dumpling indicates it contains slightly less fat but has similar protein content. It matches research finding that a serving of beef provides 22–29 grams of protein, while Impossible Burger provides 19 grams and Beyond Burger has 20 grams.

However, many Chinese consumers think that plant-based meat is less nutritious than real meat, and some even think eating less animal-derived protein would make them physically weak. Food experts and entrepreneurs in the alternative protein space also say that plant-based meat is not as nutritious as real meat. 

According to Shen Lirong, professor at the College of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science of Zhejiang University, plant-based meat lacks vitamin B12, n-3 unsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients such as iron and zinc. “It doesn’t make sense to replace real meat entirely with a plant-based version which can only serve as a supplement,” he said.

Founder of Sophie’s Kitchen, Eugene Wang shifted his focus to microalgae-based protein because his plant-based seafood products’ nutritional value was not equivalent to real seafood. According to him, to convince consumers to give up some existing food, “we have to come up with something better.”

Some consumers also worry that plant-based meat products are over-processed. Li Lei, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said various additives are used in plant-based meat manufacturing to make it taste more like real meat, leading to a higher sodium content, which will affect cardiovascular health.

Many consumers also think it is absurd to pay more money for plant-based meat because it isn’t a healthier option. The plant-based dumplings promoted by the actress in the Weibo video are priced at RMB 2 each, compared to the market average of RMB 0.6. Although Starfield’s CEO Kiki Wu said in her Weibo post that its plant-based sandwiches are sold at almost the same price levels as animal-based products, many Weibo users commented that “it’s still an expensive item when being sold at the price of  beef.” 

Long tradition, new concept

Meat made from plants is not new to Chinese people. Tofu-based vegan meat dates back to the Song Dynasty in the 10th century. Unlike China’s traditional vegan products, modern plant-based meat is created with technologies, such as wet extrusion, mimicking real meat in texture, color and taste.

Plant-based meat quickly gained traction in the business world in China soon after it was introduced in the last couple of years. Inspired by the successful IPO of Beyond Meat in 2019, many domestic businesses such as Starfield and Grain Meat emerged, and venture capital is pouring into this space. In 2020, investments in Chinese plant-based protein startups, mostly focusing on meat alternatives, rose fivefold from the previous year to $75m.

But for consumers in China, plant-based is still a novel food category. “Because over 99% of Chinese people have never tried plant-based meat, it’s understandable that so many are skeptical about it,” Wang Yi, CEO and founder of Grain Meat, a plant-based meat brand established in 2019, told CompassList. He believes that making plant-based meat products good and affordable is the key to reassuring consumers. 

Despite the huge market potential in China, $13bn by 2023 or 10% of the meat market, Zhu Danpeng, Senior Analyst at China Food Research, said: “businesses should slow down their pace of commercialization until industry standards are in place.”

According to Wang Sheng, partner of Innoangel Fund, the plant-based meat industry will go through a long process of technology iteration. "Only when its technologies and products are overwhelmingly superior to the real meat will plant-based meat become an easy choice for consumers,” he said. Innoangel Fund recently invested 8-digit RMB in Grain Meat’s seed funding round.

Food for the future

Despite the controversy, many agree with the need to develop plant-based meat in China. Livestock is a major threat to the environment, generating 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation. A gradual shift from animal-based meat to plant-based meat will help China achieve its carbon neutrality goal by 2060. 

Also, the supply chain of animal meat is vulnerable to many uncertainties, such as the African swine flu in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Sun Shuxia, the former chief expert of health education guidance in the Ministry of Health, is optimistic about plant-based meat’s prospects in China, believing the central government will come up with incentives to support it in the next 10 years for the good of the country.

However, some Chinese people worry that foreign companies will take advantage of cultivating the plant-based meat market in China because they own the core technologies and patents. “It’s a scam. We are just giving the US companies the opportunity to take money out of our pockets,” a Weibo user wrote on the social media platform.

However, Starfield CEO Wu said in her post that the sector has been doing well in R&D, and there are many excellent domestic plant-based meat brands. “I believe Chinese scientists are capable of overcoming all the technological challenges to make plant-based meat taste closer to real meat,” she added.

Edited by Selva Kumar

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