Cell-based meat in China: Firms urged to ‘break away’ from plant-based products to appeal to local consumers

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Cell-based meat firms looking to enter China would do well to differentiate themselves from plant-based meat and refocus primary messaging away from ethics and sustainability. ©Getty Images
Cell-based meat firms looking to enter China would do well to differentiate themselves from plant-based meat and refocus primary messaging away from ethics and sustainability. ©Getty Images

Related tags cell-based meat China

Cell-based meat firms looking to enter China would do well to differentiate themselves from plant-based meat and refocus primary messaging away from ethics and sustainability if they aim to gain widespread appeal, according to a local expert.

The Chinese market has been a primary target for many cell-based meat (or cultured meat) firms due to its large protein-consuming population, apparent lack of food neophobia (fear of trying new foods) and openness to novel protein sources such as plant-based meat – but a local researcher has revealed that things may not be as rosy as they seem.

“There still exists a lot of trust issues and suspicion when it comes to new technology such as cultured meat here, just as there is everywhere else – I have even seen alternative proteins being compared to major food scandals that took place in China previously on local social media,” ​Cellular Agriculture Society Research Fellow and recent Peking University graduate Chloe Dempsey said at the recent virtual Future Food Asia 2020 event.

Dempsey presented on her master’s thesis completed at Peking University, where she analysed the responses from a survey conducted on 1,000 Chinese consumers and 17 interviews with industry stakeholders including startups, big companies and investors in the area, one of the first of its kind ever done in China.

One of the major findings of her study was that the messaging used to promote cultured meat as a new food source made a major difference to Chinese consumers’ acceptance – and that framing this based on ethical or sustainable benefits was unlikely to appeal to this demographic.

“I tried framing cultured meat based on its benefits in terms of food security, as a high-tech innovation, as a healthier product (food safety and nutrition), as a popular tech that exists overseas, and on its ethical impact,”​ said Dempsey

“Of all the participants I surveyed, 62% said that would make the switch if this is a more stable source of protein, compared to only 54% when framing cultured meat as a high-tech innovation and scientific achievement; and 21% of consumers agreed to pay more for cultured meat if this was more nutritionally beneficial. But ethical impact was not a main area of focus.

“So what really works here is framing cultured meat as a product that will positively bring nutritional benefits, food safety and security - Many companies in the West often talk about cultured meat as the ethical or sustainable choice to appeal to consumers, but this is not the most relevant in this market, which needs to be taken into context.

“Ethical and green as a driver can fly in Beijing, for example, but not with those middle-class consumers who are not in first-tier cities. So all in all, this should not be your primary messaging, as it may not cost you consumers, but won’t help you to win more either. Focus on nutrition benefits and food safety instead.”

Apart from messaging, Dempsey also urged cultured meat firms to differentiate themselves from plant-based meats, as this could make a lot of difference in its appeal to the mass market.

“In China, it will be risky for cultured meat to be conflated with plant-based, as is the common case at this point, in the long term – this is because in my opinion, plant-based products are not necessarily going to have as positive a reception here,”​ she said.

“Yes, there is a history of eating plant-based products in China, but this history also means that it’s going to be difficult for the Plant-Based 2.0 products such as those trying to enter the market now to differentiate themselves.”

China currently uses the term ‘man-made meat’ to describe both plant-based and cultured meat, and the local Plant Based Food Association is one of the key promoters performing consumer education of both these meat alternatives so differentiation the two might be easier said than done, but Dempsey believes this is a crucial move for the cultured meat industry.

“Based on the recent Starbucks and KFC launches of plant-based meats that I’ve seen, social media reaction has been more like ‘Oh this meat is fake, but we have to pay more?’. [So in order to stand out and establish itself as ‘non-fake’] cultured meat must make sure not to get confused with plant-based meat,”​ she said.

“Many stakeholders I’ve spoken to had their own opinions about what cultured meat in China would be named, which were largely differing – there is an obvious need for the industry to talk about this naming, and make sure this is communicated clearly to consumers.”

Other ways to gain quicker consumer acceptance

In addition, firms were advised to look more into using cultured meat technology producing processed meat products as opposed to ‘meat on the bone’.

“The consumers who are likely to buy cultured meat are those that don’t go to wet markets and buy cuts of meat on the bone – they are likely to be doing less food prep will look to the more processed and mince categories,”​ said Dempsey.

“I’m not even sure that it is worth going after the demographic that still goes to wet markets, as it will be a lot harder to win them over for various reasons [from tradition to trust] – so if you’re a cultured meat company looking to enter China, my advice would be to delay the scaffolding research and focus on products such as snacks, sausages and sandwich meats.”

She also urged foreign firms to ‘wait and watch and learn’ ​before making the leap into China, especially as government interest is present but not yet formalised.

“When the government does get involved and invest in this sector, it will likely focus predominantly on local technology - Outsiders need to wait and watch and learn,”​ she said.

“China is a very different market - maybe that’s obvious, but seeing the attitudes of some plant-based companies that have been coming in, they don’t acknowledge that, and I think we need to. It’s not just about being culturally aware, but also recognising the local consumers and how they are different.

“There is a lot of potential here as China does have lower food neophobia, but at the same time there isn’t yet the widespread support and awareness that many seem to think exists.”


We discussed Plant-based Innovation in great detail with a range of experts in our Growth Asia 2020 interactive broadcast series. Register for free to watch this here​. 

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