Coronavirus and meat: Will China adopt meat-free diet after COVID-19 pandemic?
KFC said it will start selling plant-based fried chicken for the first time in China for a trial period in China’s Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. US-based Beyond Meat said it had "seen the growing demand for plant-based meat in China" and is offering three meals across 3,300 Starbucks in China.
As China has reopened its restaurants and cafes, more plant-based "fake" meat products are being seen on menus as suspicion over possible links between wild animal meat and the new coronavirus drives some consumers to rethink diets and lead healthier lifestyles.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, consultancy Euromonitor last year predicted China’s “free from meat” market, including plant-based products meant to replace meat, would be worth nearly $12 billion by 2023, up from just under $10 billion in 2018.
That had already attracted interest from leading US players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, with coffee chain Starbucks Corp and Yum China’s KFC fast food chain announcing plans this week to get in on the act with plant-based product promotions.
“Ironically and unfortunately we have such a dramatic outbreak, devastating everyone and everywhere, which becomes this massive catalyst,” said David Yeung, founder of Hong Kong-based Green Monday, which supplies products from Beyond Meat across Asia.
The global death toll from the pandemic has now reached 307,000, with more than 4,600 reported dead in mainland China. The virus is believed to have originated late last year among wild animals on sale in a wet market in Wuhan.
Amid restaurant closures, social distancing restrictions and growing numbers of people cooking more at home, online food purchases have surged in many markets in Asia: Distributors say plant-based goods, mostly priced competitively compared with animal products, have proved no exception.
Many parts of Asia have long used non-meat ingredients like tofu to produce meat-like food experiences.
On Wednesday, Beyond Meat started selling its plant-based food in China through thousands of Starbucks cafes. It said that had "seen the growing demand for plant-based meat in China" and is offering three meals across 3,300 Starbucks in China.
The majority of Starbucks outlets in the country have now re-opened, having been forced to close in late January.
KFC said it will also start trialling fake chicken nuggets or plant-based fried chicken from next week. The outlet will be doing it for a trial period in cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
With this, western brands are hoping to tap into a growing demand for meat substitutes in China following a global trend to eat less meat and more plant-based foods.
China is also dealing with a meat shortage, says the BBC, particularly pork supplies, after African swine fever wiped out half of its hog herd in 2018. It has been struggling to import pork due to virus restrictions on factories across the world.
According to Euromonitor, China remains the world’s biggest consumer of meat, with a retail value equal to roughly $170 billion annually. On that scale, meat will dwarf alternative products for many years to come.
China’s Zhenmeat -- sometimes referred to by state media as the country’s answer to Beyond Meat -- is betting on sales booming once restaurants resume normal business across the country.
Vince Lu, chief executive and founder, said the company is planning to expand into Shanghai and Shenzhen from Beijing, where it currently sells its beef substitute products in 50 restaurants.
“After the coronavirus, Chinese people have more consciousness not to eat wild animals and eat the right sources of protein,” said Lu.
"We see Asia as a key region for strategic long-term growth and Beyond Meat's goal is to have localized production within Asia by the end of 2020," said a Beyond Meat spokesman.
Its products are currently distributed in several countries across Asia including Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
But the likes of Starbucks, KFC and Beyond Meat face challenges convincing Chinese consumers to eat their plant-based fake meats.
"The demand for healthier, non-meat proteins is not as high in China as in the US because Chinese already eat more vegetables as part of their daily diet than Americans and Europeans. It's relatively rare for Chinese to say they are vegetarians," said Shaun Rein at the China Market Research Group.