January 24, 2020

Can next-gen fake meat become a hit in China?

At a time when China’s economic progress has meant more disposable income, the country’s population now tops the world for meat consumption. But with our uncertain resource future, the rise of meat analogues is continuing to gain momentum. Is there room for fake meats in China (and frankly globally)despite its traditionally pork-loving culture?

Fake meats new and old

While the debate on the health aspects of meat consumption rages on, there is less question about the large impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions Together, these two major factors form the drive to reduce the consumption of meat — real meat that is. Enter meat analogues or “fake” meats. These substitutes are actually nothing new, and have existed for centuries, especially to abide by the dietary laws of different religions, but are taking on new meaning in the 21st century:

  • Tofu: made from soybeans and likely the most widely known meat substitute
  • Tempeh: traditional Indonesian soy product made from the fermented beans and pressed into cake form.
  • Wheat Gluten: use to make most of the fake meats (such as duck and bbq pork) derived from the Chinese Buddhist culinary tradition. Also called seitan.
  • Almonds: Used as a meat and dairy substitute, especially during Lent in Medieval Europe.

As for the comparatively new kids on the block, different companies use different proteins and methods to produce their meat:

  • Beyond Meat: uses proteins from peas, mung bean and rice.
  • Impossible Foods: uses a genetically modified soy molecule called heme
  • Quorn: the UK-based company uses fungal protein with egg albumen as a binder.
  • Zhenmeat: the Beijing-based startup uses 3D printers to produce products that contain elements like bones, which Chinese are used to eating the meat off of.
  • Green Monday: Based in Hong Kong, its breakout ground meat product, OmniPork, uses shiitake mushroom, peas, rice and non-GMO soy.
  • Whole Perfect Food: Founded in 1993 in Shenzhen, the manufacturer of over 300 products uses different methods for different products, such as extracting seaweed protein for vegan seafood.

While the historical meat analogues were created for vegetarians and vegans, they and newer analogues are hoping to sway hardline carnivores and omnivores alike with the promise of the same taste or tastier, better nutrition and the chance to help the planet.

Breaking into the Chinese market

A New York Times article by David Yaffe-Bellany outlines the efforts of American companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that want to break into the Chinese market. they have a few hurdles to overcome:

  • Regulations: there’s a spiderweb of regulatory bodies to get through before it can even be approved.
  • Culture: even though meat-free Buddhist cuisine is thought to to have originated in China, the culture still largely favors tradition and the status associated with meat consumption. This consumption (especially pork) is expected to rise in the next six years.
  • Local Competition: there are already China-based fake meat companies that are ahead of the game in terms of being integrated and localized for that market.

Like all companies trying to enter a tough market, those two will likely have to make serious adjustments to the game plan to integrate successfully.

The KFC Case Study

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to repeat the failures of many US brands in China. For one, KFC had to largely abandon its US model before becoming a the most popular US fast food chain in China:

  • Larger stores: where KFCs in the US favored take out, those in China were doubled in size to welcome groups, extended families and longer stays.
  • Larger menus: the larger menus and rotation of season items are meant to aggressively cater to local tastes (which also required hiring more food prep staff).
  • Smaller cities: Instead of competing with McDonald’s in the largest cities, KFC opted to for the ones with smaller populations where the incomes were rising and the brand’s appeal would still be novel.

In short, success did follow this particular brand, but it meant extensive localization along with a strong business strategy.

The Takeaway

While at least one fast food company managed to find a way to sell fried chicken to a culture that already consumes chicken, it’s going to be a far greater challenge of selling fake meat to an unabashedly carnivorous population. Not unlike the prosperity (and subsequent rise in meat consumption) America enjoyed post-World War II, China’s transition through that war, its own civil war and sharp economic rise mean its appetite for meat will continue to increase.

But it also presents an interesting conundrum with respects to the interaction between established cultures and brands that are new to them. Fake meat spreading into tough markets isn’t going to happen overnight, but it maybe come sooner against the backdrop of wider pushes to change our diets as the planet faces a future with scarcer resources and increasingly more mouths to feed as the population grows roughly 1.05% or 81 million people per year.

It’s an interesting if uneasy intersect between culture, economics and the environment: we could say definitively that because one group is disproportionately impacting the globe with its massive population, they should change. Yet on the other, we might risk dictating that because our current culture or lifestyle of choice is deemed more advanced or “better” than the old one we had, as we come to reckon with its consequences, that a group should move away from it — and toward the product we’re selling — just as they’re starting to enjoy any of the benefits.

What has to happen first to catalyze change? Does a culture have to be catered to above-all or does it depend on the brand’s global recognition, does the brand forcibly re-write the local culture a bit with strong localized imaging and marketing to gain traction — or will more dire circumstances take care of the re-writing?

 

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