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China’s plant-based and meat-alternative market has experienced a surge in recent years, with COVID-19 further adding to an already upward projection. As the largest consumer market in the world, China is increasingly important for international players in the plant-based and cultured meat industry, and although China’s own plant-based industry is only in the nascent stages, the Chinese government plans to decrease the country’s meat consumption by 50% by 2030 to reduce carbon emissions and prevent obesity.
With a change in dietary attitudes and increasing safety concerns, alongside the sheer size of the market, China is a key targetfor plant-based industries. China’s vegan food market is now estimated to be worth nearly US$12 billion by 2023, making this an optimal time for both international and domestic companies to enter the alternative-meat market. However, it is key that both understand the opportunities and challenges.
Health concerns in China are rising due to the prevalence of overweight adults and climbing obesity rates. According to Tastewise, a consumer insights platform, consumer motivations for eating plant-based products are shifting away from ideological and political drivers to more health-oriented motivations.
Plant-based foods contain no cholesterol, tend to be low in saturated fat, high in iron and do not contain residual antibiotics or hormones. With measures taken by the Chinese government including dietary guidelines in 2016 which recommended a reduction in meat and poultry intake, this is a prime moment for the meat-alternative market to propose healthier options.
The key international players leading the plant-based market are American companies Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. 2020 has seen these companies enter the Chinese market by various means including partnering with chains such as Starbucks, KFC, and Taco Bell.
While these companies are engaging with international markets, their current products are not engineered to Chinese tastes. Chinese companies entering the market are at an advantage as they understand local tastes and culture, and are focusing on local dishes such as dumplings, as well as opting for pork rather than beef flavors.
Zhenmeat, a China-based start-up, is once such organisation catering to local culture by creating plant-based mooncakes, a Chinese bakery product traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Beyond cultural traditions, texture is a key consideration. For example, the texture of a meatball from the Yangzhou region is very dimpled, while hotpot meatballs are crispy. Foreign plant-based companies might not succeed in China if they do not observe regional preferences.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on consumer perception and concerns around food safety. Wet markets in China are constantly under suspicion of creating new COVID-19 hotspots which has resulted in a shift towards plant-based alternatives. The plant-based market already had a steady forecast, but the global pandemic and other recent events such as the African Swine Flu which wiped out 180-million of the country’s hogs in 2019, have further led to the rise of conversions to the plant-based market on the grounds of safety.
The health benefits of meat-alternatives is one of the driving motivators for Chinese consumers. Weight loss is a significant factor, the importance of which has gone up +21% year-over-year, as well as gut health which is growing at a rate of +23%, and an emerging motivation is fertility which has grown in demand by +43%. Drilling down to specific health concerns is key to understanding the trend towards plant-based and meat
alternatives, and new motivations such as fertility are now becoming more commonplace.
The coronavirus pandemic has provided companies with an opportunity and platform to introduce consumers to plant-based alternatives.
As there are concerns around food safety and the potential impact of the role of meat products in the spread of COVID-19, consumers are more willing than ever to learn about alternative products and the potential associated health and safety benefits.
The strongest segments for the plant-based market are Millennials and Generation Z. The buzz surrounding plant-based products has sparked an interest in vegan diets among traditional meat-eaters, and producers can rely on demand from younger Chinese consumers who are avid followers of food trendsand love to try new cuisines. The prevalence of increasing obesity amongst Chinese teenagers is a health concern which plant-based companies can alleviate. Leveraging social media and influencers is key to strategies to engage these segments and promoteplant-based options as healthy and trendy.
According to a survey produced by iiMedia Research, 36% of Chinese consumers said they didn't know what plant-based meat is, and nearly 40% of respondents said they did not know much about plant-based meat substitutes. While there is an opportunity to educate, there is also the concern of negative attitudes towards meat-imitating products which can be seen as fake and unnatural, meaning that appealing to the natural aspect of plant-based products is crucial.
While positioning of the plant-based market in the West has seen success through promotion of sustainability and environmental impact, a different approach is needed for the Chinese market. The primardriver for Chinese consumers shifting to meat-alternative products is the health benefits with sustainability and ethical concerns not rating high.
Companies entering the market with cell-based and cultured meat products in particular should be conscious of positioning themselves as different to plant-based. There are trust issues around cell-based products, however, understanding motivations is key to successful positioning. According to a study from Peking University, 62% of consumers said they would switch to cell-based meat if it was a more stable form of protein and 54% would be convinced by the positioning as a high-tech innovation. Ethical and sustainable factors were not rated as significant motivations.