The window of a KFC in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou hosts the image of a familiar mound of golden nuggets. However, this overflowing bucket sporting Colonel Sanders’ smiling face is slightly different. The bucket is green and the nuggets within it are completely meat free.
Over the past couple of years, after many years of rising meat consumption by China’s expanding middle class for whom eating pork every day was a luxurious sign of new financial comforts, the green shoots of a vegan meat revolution have begun to sprout.
Although China still consumes 28 percent of the world’s meat, including half of all pork, and boasts a meat market valued at US$86 billion, plant-based meat substitutes are slowing carving out a place for themselves among a new generation of consumers increasingly alarmed by food crises such as COVID-19 and African swine fever.
China’s most cosmopolitan cities are now home to social media groups, Web sites and communities dedicated to meat-free lifestyles. VegeRadar, for example, has compiled comprehensive maps of vegetarian and vegan restaurants across the nation.
A report by the Good Food Institute forecast that China’s plant-based meat market, estimated at 6.1 billion yuan (US$939 million at the current exchange rate) in 2018, would grow between 20 and 25 percent annually.
Yun Fanwei, a 25-year-old student from Shanghai, is one of a new breed of vegetarians hungry for more options.
“I buy some of these fake meat products and a lot of them are pretty good. They don’t necessarily taste like meat, but it makes a nice change from tofu,” she said.
Eating meat has been closely connected with the growing affluence of China. In the 1960s, the average Chinese person consumed 5kg of meat a year. This had shot up to 20kg by the time of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) “reform and opening” of the late 1970s, and to 48kg by 2015.
However, in 2016, as part of its pledge to bring down carbon emissions, the Chinese government outlined a plan to cut the nation’s meat intake by 50 percent. It was a radical move, and so far very few other governments around the world have included meat consumption in their carbon-reduction plans.
The new guidelines, which called on citizens to consume just 40g to 75g of meat a day, were promoted with a series of public information adverts featuring the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron.
Since then, there have been few other concrete steps taken, other than Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in August last year launching a “clean plate campaign” aimed at reducing the “shocking and distressing” 40 percent of food that goes straight from Chinese dinner tables into the trash can.
Some commentators speculated that asking Chinese citizens to reduce their meat consumption was felt to be particularly unpopular.
However, alternative proteins are seen as a possible route forwards. Last year, at the annual “two sessions” parliament, Sun Baoguo (孫寶國), a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, called for more investment in, and regulation and promotion of artificial meat.
Some of the biggest international chains operating in China have been quick to bet on the growth of alternative meats. KFC is now selling vegan chicken nuggets, Burger King is offering an Impossible Whopper, and Starbucks is serving Beyond Meat pastas, salads and wraps.
Domestic companies are setting up shop, too, betting that state backing would come soon, not least because the government might see alternative proteins as a way to let citizens continue to have the “luxury” of meat while also moving toward its carbon-reduction goals.
That optimism has led to several Chinese competitors entering the market alongside international powerhouses such as Cargill, Unilever and Nestle, as well as the vegan meat poster-children Impossible and Beyond.
OmniFoods, which launched in Hong Kong in 2018, is one of a band of regional start-ups jostling for market share, having recently opened a multibrand vegan shop and restaurant in Shanghai, and secured its signature product, OmniPork, in McDonald’s in Hong Kong, and Aldi, White Castle and Starbucks on the mainland.
The company, which plans to operate in 13 countries this year, also just completed its UK soft launch for Veganuary, during which OmniPork was turned into everything from scotch eggs to Korean bibimbap at participating restaurants.
OmniFoods founder David Yeung (楊大偉) hopes the opening of a China-based factory next year would help bring down the price of his products. Plant-based proteins cost much more than their meat counterparts, a major barrier when it comes to getting China’s notoriously thrifty shoppers to make the switch.
“Obviously minimizing logistics and middle parties, and creating economies of scale will have a big impact on the value chain. As we cut these expenses in China, we foresee a significant price drop,” Yeung said.
Shanghai-based Z-Rou produces a plant-based mince substitute which is already in the canteens of some of China’s top international schools, hospitals and businesses. Z-Rou CEO Franklin Yao (姚嘉誠), is targeting opinion leaders and middle-class consumers who can afford to make conscious choices.
“They would even be willing to pay more as they know they’re getting a healthier product that’s helping ensure the future of the planet their children are inheriting. That’s priceless,” Yao said.
Other China players include Zhenmeat, which makes plant-based beef, pork and crayfish, and Starfield, whose seaweed-based mince alternative has been turned into dishes at some of China’s leading restaurant chains.
Yao said the industry was still very small in China, but he thought meat-free substitutes would become mainstream very soon.
“Chinese consumers are actively looking for more sustainable products. While the link between meat and the environment is still weak among the majority of the population, the interest is there and China learns fast,” he said.
However, weaning people off meat might prove harder than some of these companies would like to think.
“I’ve tried a vegetarian braised pork dish before, but it’s not the same as real meat,” 64-year-old retiree Bao Gege said. “The taste, texture and nutritional values are not comparable. I wouldn’t try it again, even if it was cheaper than meat.”
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