On a new one In the morning in downtown Shenzhen, Lingyu queued to order McMuffin. While waiting in line with fellow commuters, the 50-year-old accountant noticed the new vegetarian options on the menu and decided to try the counterfeit Spam and the scrambled egg burger.
“I’ve never had the wrong meat,” she said of the burger – one of five new breakfast items McDonald’s introduced last week in three major Chinese cities with lunch meat substitutes made by Green Monday.
Lingyu, who works in her family business in Shenzhen, is exactly the kind of Chinese customer who wants to attract imitation meat beyond the young, trendy and environmentally conscious city dwellers. Your yuan may mean more to meat substitutes as it advances both their business and climate agendas. Eating less meat is one of the easiest ways to reduce a person’s carbon footprint and help fight climate change.
McDonald’s hopes its pea-and-soy-based, cholesterol-free lunch meat substitutes will form part of China’s huge restaurant market. Long-time rival KFC and local competitor Dicos launched their own herbal products last year. Partnering with fast food chains is a smart move for companies looking to promote alternative proteins to the masses, as these products are often expensive and are typically aimed at wealthy city-dwellers.
2020 could have been the start of the alternative protein in China. More than 10 startups raised capital to produce vegetable protein for a country with increasing meat demand. Of these, Starfield, Hey Maet, Vesta, and Haofood have been around for about a year; ZhenMeat was founded three years ago; and the aforementioned Green Monday is a nine-year Hong Kong company venturing into mainland China. Competition intensified last year when American incumbents Beyond Meat and Eat Just came to China.
While some investors fear the sudden boom in meat replacement startups could turn into a bubble, others believe the market is far from saturated.
“Think about how much meat China consumes each year,” said an investor in a Chinese soy protein startup who asked for anonymity. “Even if alternative protein replaces 0.01% of consumption, it could be a market worth tens of billions of dollars.”
China is in many ways the ideal test field for alternative protein. The country has a long history of imitation meat rooted in Buddhist vegetarianism and a growing middle class who are increasingly health conscious and eager to experiment. The country also has the global vegetable protein supply chain under control, which could give domestic startups an advantage over foreign competitors.
“I believe that in five years, China will see a number of domestic plant-based protein companies rivaling industry leaders from Europe and North America,” said Xie Zihan, who founded Vesta to develop soy-based meats suitable for Chinese cuisine.
Types of meat
Lily Chen, manager of the Chinese arm of alternative protein investor Lever VC, outlines three categories of meat analogue companies in China: Western giants such as Beyond Meat and Eat Just; local players; and conglomerates like Unilever and Nestlé developing vegan meat product lines as a defense strategy. Lever VC invested in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats.
“They all have their product differentiation, but the industry is still at a very early stage,” said Chen.