One of the new Chinese start-ups in the meat alternatives sector: Starfield
In our last Letter from Silicon Valley, we reported about the global boom in alternatives to meat. These developments are also making themselves felt in China, even if in a rather different way.
In the West, alternatives to meat and fish have enjoyed greatest popularity in processed ready meals as chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, fish fingers, meat strips and the like. The meat in these dishes is in small pieces and is often highly spiced, which makes replacing it with a plant-based alternative much easier than trying to imitate unprocessed meat in the form of steaks or fish fillets.
Although these fast food dishes are popular with people in China, they're not part of everyday food culture. Chinese cuisine, with its many different ways of cooking, steaming, frying, deep frying or stir frying food is a real challenge to meat alternatives. And that's not forgetting that China has its own alternatives to meat such as tofu, whose long tradition of use makes it a direct competitor to new products.
For these reasons, companies have been looking for joint projects with restaurant chains or outlets for selling Western-inspired ready meals, which have also found a market in here, as a means of introducing their products to China. For example, Cargill, the American food giant, has launched PlantEver, a Chinese brand which includes plant-based chicken nuggets and hamburger patties. The Beyond Meat start-up started out with a cooperative venture with Starbucks before putting its own products on supermarket shelves.
Domestic competition is also increasing. Chinese brands such as Omnifoods or Starfield are developing their own protein alternatives, with the aim of making them closer to the taste of traditional Asian dishes. Both companies offer vegan mince for use in meatballs or wok dishes or as the filling for dim sum.
Both approaches still have a long way to go before they reach the mass market, and consumers are still reacting to them rather cautiously. However, there are opportunities, especially in the larger cities whose citizens are more open minded about new products. In addition to taste and texture, the price is also a decisive factor: consumers are put off by the price of meat alternatives, which are often much more expensive than the original product.
This is why some manufacturers are looking for endorsements by influencers and TV celebrities to win over new customers. This is a very promising marketing strategy because so many consumers in China can be reached by social media.