Since April, plant-based meats have been enjoying something of a moment in China. First, coffee giant Starbucks partnered with Beyond Meat and OmniFoods to launch a new plant-based menu in most of its Chinese locations. Then, the country’s most popular fast-food chain — KFC — trialled plant-based chicken nuggets in three of its stores in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, respectively. They sold out in a matter of hours.
Now Pizza Hut is joining in, unveiling a plant-based burger option in select stores on Monday. The three are the highest-profile brands to offer plant-based meat options in China thus far; that they did so in such short order is a morale boost for those who want to see meat alternatives become more readily available for ordinary Chinese consumers.
But conventional meat isn’t cooked just yet. China remains the world’s largest consumer of meat products, and plant-based alternatives still lag behind animal meat in terms of price, flavor, and convenience.
Promotional photos for plant-based meat products at Starbucks (left) and KFC, April 2020. From@星巴克中国 and @肯德基 on Weibo
Per capita, China’s appetite for meat is still far lower than more affluent markets such as the United States. But the trend is clear: Over the last four decades, rising incomes have driven a sevenfold increase in Chinese meat consumption. And thanks to an expanding middle class, this demand is expected to keep growing. The United Nations estimates the average Chinese citizen will consume 55 kilograms of meat per year in 2026, a 10% increase from 2017.
In other words, as heartening as it is to see major companies embrace plant-based alternatives, the fact remains that KFC and Starbucks’ ventures are small fries in the Chinese meat world. And they’re likely to remain so as long as plant-based meat alternatives cost more and taste worse than conventional meat.
Starbucks has priced its Beyond Meat and OmniFoods dishes at around 60-70 yuan ($8.40-$9.80) — almost double the cost of comparable dishes featuring conventional meat. That could price out even many of Starbucks’ regular Chinese customers, let alone those already blanching at the cost of a cup of coffee. And early reviews of the new menu have been lukewarm, with one dissatisfied customer remarking that, while the texture isn’t bad, “the flavors are still quite different from real beef.” Another complained the fake beef tasted like soy.
Similar issues have spoiled the rollout of KFC’s plant-based nuggets. A popular vegetarian vlogger with more than 3 million followers on Chinese video-streaming website Bilibili noted a “clear plant flavor” and hints of vegetables in the texture of the nuggets. He and his friend said they had no trouble distinguishing the plant-based nuggets from the real thing in a blind test.
This isn’t just a problem for Starbucks and KFC, but also for their partners, who’ve staked their brands on the claim they can imitate the flavor, convenience, and cheapness of conventional meat. That’s because, unlike past generations of alternative meat producers, companies like Beyond Meat and OmniFoods aren’t aiming to sell only to vegetarians, but to meat-eaters.
If they can’t compete on price and taste, these new products are unlikely to sway consumption habits in the long run. Starbucks’ pricing suggests it’s trying to get affluent customers curious about novel foods, not permanently displace existing demand for its conventional meat products.
KFC, meanwhile, has avoided complaints in part because it sold its plant-based nuggets at a promotional price more than five times lower than that of its regular chicken nuggets — perhaps explaining its claim to have sold out of the nuggets within an hour. If fast-food chains in the U.S. are anything to go by, however, that pricing is likely to change if they ever become a regular part of the menu at its Chinese locations.
It’s not all hopeless. The novel coronavirus outbreak has started a national conversation about the risks of meat consumption, with a study from market research firm Ipsos showing an increase in Chinese consumers’ awareness of the links between food safety and meat consumption in recent months. The study also shows that 1 in 5 Chinese intend to replace some of their regular meat consumption with alternative sources of protein, a trend that restaurants and sellers will be looking to capitalize on given how meat prices have skyrocketed over the past year.
Consumers’ growing awareness of the consequences of their diets is another point for alternative meat. A 2018 survey by a New Zealand research institute found that 39% of Chinese are reducing their meat consumption, with the most common reasons for the diet change being health-related. China has the most diabetics and one of the largest populations of obese individuals in the world, while high-profile food scandals — including some involving fake meat — have driven many consumers to become hyper-aware of how different food products affect their health.
With health concerns becoming a key driver of Chinese consumers’ consumption habits, plant-based businesses and brands would do well to market the health benefits of their products. Starbucks, for example, has emphasized the “high protein” of its plant-based menu items.
“KFC and Starbucks have launched plant-based products with a ‘clean,’ refreshing and healthy image, which created a lot of buzz and attention in China,” said Doris Lee, principal consultant at GFIC, a China-based alternative protein consultancy. This contrasts with similar marketing campaigns in the West, which may focus on animal welfare or climate change as reasons for buying alternative meats.
Indeed, understanding the Chinese consumer and their cultural context is paramount — as is avoiding gaffes that antagonize potential buyers. The emergence of homegrown players in this space should help. Take Shenzhen-based startup Starfield, for instance. Since launching a year ago, it’s both partnered with Western chains like Papa John’s and developed artificial meat mooncakes.
Another example is OmniFoods. Last month, the Hong Kong-based company launched two new fake pork products: plant-based pork strips and plant-based luncheon meat.
The latter is a particularly interesting opportunity for plant-based meat developers. According to Global Info Research, luncheon meat is hugely popular in Asia, especially in China, where it is often found in hot pot and fried rice. Given the product’s already heavily processed nature, OmniFoods is hoping mainland consumers will be more open to switching to a healthier alternative.
It’s still early, and plant-based brands and restaurants may yet figure out how to build demand for their products — KFC in particular is known for its sometimes radical approach to food localization — and change the world. But unless they can deliver an inexpensive, delicious, and convenient product, they run the risk of being written off as novelties.
As the above-mentioned vegetarian food blogger put it in his review of KFC’s plant based nuggets: “For me as a vegetarian, the significance of this isn’t big.”
“For me, as a meat-eater, it’s even smaller,” his friend replied.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that China had the highest obesity rate in the world.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A diner shows off KFC’s traditional (left) and plant-based nuggets, April 2020. From @肯德基 on Weibo)