Chinese Media And Plant-Based Meat
In April 2020, Starbucks and KFC added plant-based meats (PBMs) to selected stores in China. While alternative meat products have a long history in China, this marked the first time that PBMs were introduced within its mainstream commercial food outlets. The success of PBMs in China is critical to the global PBM market because of the country’s increasing demand for meat and ongoing expansion of meat production.
This article explored key themes among ten Chinese publications about the launch of PBMs in KFC and Starbucks. Because these launches gained significant media attention, the study offers some insight into public attitudes towards PBMs. Attitudes towards PBMs have rarely been studied outside of Western markets, and consumers in China focus on different aspects of the industry. Specifically, five themes suggest both challenges and opportunities for the growth of PBM markets in China:
1. Inconsistent Terminology
Due to unfamiliarity with PBMs, the media used several terms interchangeably, such as “artificial meat,” “plant meat,” and “vegetarian meat.” Each term carries its own definition and cultural connotation. For example, the chosen term may include or exclude lab-grown meats. It also may associate or distance PBMs from modern technology, traditional soy- and seitan-based foods, or a subset of consumers such as vegans or Buddhists. Descriptions of the products also differed, and the fact that there was so much inconsistency suggests that Chinese consumers remain confused about PBM products.
2. What Consumers Think
The articles suggest that consumers in China are most concerned with the health, price, and taste of PBMs as compared to conventional meats. The most common consideration was health. While most articles discussed the health upsides of PBMs — for example, the protein content and the benefits for certain consumers, like older people and those with high cholesterol — fewer mentioned health risks.
Although KFC and Starbucks marketed their PBM products as environmentally friendly, very few articles mentioned the environmental benefits. On balance, equal numbers of articles said that consumers think the taste of PBMs is not as good — versus comparable to — traditional meat. On the negative side, six articles discussed the high prices of PBMs and the barriers they pose to consumers.
3. Stock Market Response
The stock market reflects the predictions of investors who follow consumer trends. Half of all articles included in the study discussed the effect of the PBM launch on the stock market. Most of them reported positively, mentioning the rise in stock prices of Chinese PBM companies, while four noted the global growth of the PBM market and research supporting its continued expansion. Two criticized the trends, suggesting the positive market reaction could be a temporary success or a “hype.”
4. Influence Of Zoonotic Illnesses
The authors of the study note that COVID-19 had a major impact on the media’s interest in PBMs around the world, and China was no exception. Eight of ten articles mentioned the impact of COVID-19 or African Swine Fever on the PBM industry, almost all citing positive impacts. Predominantly, they discussed the stability and safety of PBM production over industrial animal agriculture. Food security disruptions, such as those resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, and public health concerns, including the history and potential of zoonotic disease, make PBMs a better option.
5. Domestic PBM Production And Regulation
Most articles discussed the effect of the launch on Chinese PBM suppliers. Three mentioned that Chinese food producers have increased their involvement with the PBM market, following the trends of growing PBM popularity in Europe and North America. On the other hand, half of all articles warned that a lack of clear regulation for the PBM market may cause consumer concern or lead investors to delay their support of these products.
While this study shows there is certainly potential for the Chinese PBM market to continue growing, media and investor information can differ from consumer views. The size of the country means that there is likely a diversity of opinions among Chinese consumers that aren’t being captured in this data. Furthermore, with only ten articles included in the analysis, it is difficult to draw broad conclusions. Overall, the Chinese PBM market holds initial success and good promise—especially if we address its specific challenges and opportunities. However, for advocates, it may help to push PBMs by focusing on topics that are relevant specifically to Chinese consumers. According to this study, that means developing campaigns around health and price messaging and avoiding animal welfare and social topics, such as meat and masculinity and religious veganism.