China’s artificial meat race is heating up — Nestlé foods and major bubble tea chain HeyTea have joined the fight against giants like KFC and Starbucks.
China has longstanding experience with tofu, rice flours, and nuts. Part of that comes from the country’s relationship with Buddhism, which was introduced as early as the Han Dynasty. In China, though, foods like tofu don’t hold the same “meat substitute” connotation as in Europe or the US — they’re simply different dishes, with an identity all their own.
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But make no mistake, China is still the world’s largest meat consumer, swallowing up approximately 28% of global supply. It seems only natural then that China would become a primary overseas market for artificial meat powerhouses Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
The two companies capitalized on growing demand for meat alternatives in the US to become major food businesses in a matter of years, and have struck deals with major chains like McDonald’s and Burger King.
In China, Beyond Meat began producing artificial meat lunches for Starbucks earlier this year, and KFC has successfully beta tested it own non-chicken nuggets and a sandwich. But they face competition in the sector. Last week, Chinese tea giant HeyTea (喜茶) announced that it would begin serving cheeseburgers made by Chinese artificial meat startup STARFIELD. Immediately after, global food conglomerate Nestlé announced that it was investing 100 million USD to build its first artificial meat factory in China.
“In recent years, the food sector has undergone a quiet revolution as people are choosing more and more healthy, nutritious, and environmentally friendly foods,” Nestlé said in a press release.
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Consumers seemingly welcomed HeyTea’s new offerings, with some stores selling out in just hours. But experts say that plant-based meat is not yet positioned to attract large numbers of domestic consumers given its relatively high price.
Artificial meat companies in China including STARFIELD are confident that they will create technology that can imitate beef, fish, chicken, pork and other meats — but how long that will take is a matter of science, and regulatory procedures that so far, have been slow moving. Nonetheless, it seems China will become an interesting testing ground for these products and if the world’s largest consumer of meat can be weaned off of this particular habit, the environmental impact could be enormous.
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