Shanghai-based Kiwi Hunter McGregor checks out the impact plant-based ‘meats’ are having on the Chinese market.

Over the past few years there has been plenty of talk and media hype around plant-based meats. Until now, this has mostly been driven from United States ‘beef’-focused products. You would most likely have heard of Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat but there are many others, and the focus is not just beef but all proteins (meat, dairy and seafood).

Before African swine fever (ASF) China would consume just over 50% of the pork consumed worldwide. Since ASF this has most likely changed but it’s difficult to get clear statistics. If you want to have the biggest impact on the protein market here in China with plant-based meats, then the focus needs to be on pork.

Many local and international companies are doing just this and the market for plant-based meats (like everything else here) is now competitive.

A new product seems to hit the market each week here in Shanghai. Until the middle of the year, I did not know anything about these products. As someone in the protein market, I decided to look behind the hype.

I started talking to many top chefs in Shanghai about plant-based products, and tried a couple of products at home. When I was offered an opportunity to be involved with a plant-based event, I jumped at the chance. I am claiming this event as a world first (New Zealand meat/venison and plant-based meat event outside of NZ) unless someone can tell me otherwise!

Looking past all the hype I see: It is just mince but it is not like mince.

All plant-based meats are in a minced form, but I am sure this will change over time as they develop new products.

Being just a minced product makes it limited in its usage within the kitchen. But none of the products seem to behave like minced meat, so it is difficult to use only one plant-based meat across all minced-based recipes. For example, one chef told me that one product fries and becomes crispy very well, but that same product does not work very well in dumplings.

Another product is the other way around and works well in dumplings but cannot be fried because it just falls apart. You can understand why the focus on developing a grilling burger makes sense for the American companies, but I have not heard how their mince is because I don’t think it’s available in Shanghai yet.

Need to teach Chinese chefs how to cook it

When it comes to educating chefs in China about new protein/product, it is a really difficult job. I should know as I have spent the past five years doing just this with NZ venison.

I wish the entire plant-based industry luck with this challenge because it is not easy. It is very time-consuming and chefs’ time (to train them) is becoming more and more limited. Without the ability to correctly cook and present the product, it’s going to make building sales really challenging. Pre-cooked or packaged will overcome a lot of this. But there will be major challenges around price points.

Price point needs to be cheaper

Just about every chef I talked to about plant-based meats all said the same thing around pricing. When the pricing is cheaper than the ‘real’ meat then it will be better. This is the major challenge all plant-based meats are facing, because it is not seen as a premium product but more of a cheap mass-market item.

The other challenge is as demand grows so will the demand for the plant ingredients. But it looks likely the farmer/suppliers’ margins are going to be squeezed right from the get-go.

One thing for sure is that the plant-based meats (and other proteins) are only going to grow and there is plenty of investment dollars going into the sector.

There is also consumer demand for healthier and environmentally friendly foods, and at the moment plant-based meats seem to fit well into this trend.

One other thing I don’t fully understand is that everyone who is selling and promoting these products is saying they are ‘healthy’.

I get the feeling that consumers think that it’s made from plants so it must be healthy. Plants are healthy, right? But I have no idea if they are really that healthy. Yes, the base ingredients are from plants but all of these products are highly processed, and the details of how they are actually made are not very clear.

The processing is where these companies build intellectual property (IP) and their point of difference. The only other highly processed product that I can think of as healthy, is infant formula.

The processing part is very clear in this case because it’s drying it into a powder. Are there any other processed foods out there that are healthy? There might be, but I’m not that familiar with them.

Looking behind the hype there are plenty of challenges for the plant-based industry, but nothing that cannot be overcome. These products will continue to improve as they develop better processing. From a low base they will continue to take market share of plates in China and around the world.

How big the plant-based products industry grows depends upon the end consumer.

One thing is for sure the entire plant-based industry is working very hard to promote itself.

There is plenty of talk from consumers about more interest in where their food comes from. This is a challenge and an opportunity for everyone selling food.

I am excited about the future of the NZ red meat industry, because we tick many boxes that the consumer is looking for. It is important that we don’t just sit back and think this is enough. We need to be out in the markets around the world discussing the benefits of NZ protein products directly with individual consumers.

  • Hunter McGregor is a Chinese-speaking Kiwi based in Shanghai selling NZ meat into China.