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September 17, 2020

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China a battleground for plant-based meat makers

China has become a battleground for plant-based meat companies looking to tap into the world’s largest market for meat-consumption.

American plant-based meat company Impossible Foods Inc said last week it is awaiting regulatory approval to enter the Chinese mainland market, while rivals such as Beyond Meat have pushed forward with plans to set up production in China. Those are just two of the companies with sights set on the 1.4 billion Chinese consumers they hope may join their Western counterparts in seeking alternatives to meat beyond traditional mock meat offerings that already span the spectrum from faux crab to duck breast and steak.

Impossible Foods needs extra regulatory approvals because its plant-based meat products include genetically modified substances including heme, a molecule that imparts a meaty flavor, as well as soy protein

“We’re going through a regulatory process and it takes its time. It’s going well as far as I can tell,” said Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown. “But as soon as we get to the other end of that, we’ll see you the next day.”

Beyond Meat, which last week announced it is opening a factory in an industrial zone near Shanghai, says it does not use any genetically modified ingredients. Nestle has said it is expanding a plant-based products factory in the northern city of Tianjin.

Local Chinese companies such as Zhenmeat and Starfield also are expanding their businesses, partnering with restaurants across the country and even offering vegan-based seafood.

Brown said that the troubled state of relations between the US and China was not a “principal obstacle” to the company’s entry into the market, and that the regulatory process is about food safety, not trade. The company last week announced the launch of a sausage product in Hong Kong, via menu items in coffee chain Starbucks and some other restaurants.

Impossible Foods’ products include plant-based beef, pork and sausage. Brown said the company plans to build a factory in China and a domestic supply chain for the ingredients it needs so its products will be manufactured in China.

Matilda Ho, founder of Bits x Bites, China’s first food technology venture capital group, says the coronavirus pandemic is a good opportunity to introduce consumers to plant-based alternatives, since some fear the illness might be spread through meat — though there is no evidence of such cases.

“Although people are now returning back to the normal routine after COVID-19, consumers are concerned about the potential link between meat products and the virus. Some are reducing their meat intake as a result,” Ho said.

However, since most plant-based meat products often cost more, breaking into the mainland market could be challenging.

“The China market is challenging because the food culture and consumer palette are immensely diverse, and the market is very price sensitive,” said Elaine Siu, managing director of The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific.


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