Yesterday, Impossible Foods announced it will move into the plant-based pork business. Both major U.S. makers of plant-based protein, Impossible and Beyond Meat, are focusing on China as they develop new products; Impossible CEO Pat Brown told CNN, “In the next year or two, we’re putting a lot of effort into expanding into international markets, particularly in Asia, where pork is the dominant meat product.” It makes sense, since China is the world’s largest consumer of meat, and African swine fever has greatly diminished the country’s pork supply. But if these companies aspire to gain ground in China, they have a whole lot to learn about how China’s relationship to meat might differ from North America’s. The New York Times has a rundown this week of all the potential stumbling blocks of bringing plant-based meat into this new market.
First off, there’s the government. Regulations surrounding imported food are complex. Beyond Meat is made from pea protein whereas Impossible is made from soy protein, and in China each of those proteins is classified differently and must adhere to different standards—it’s not like the regulatory process for one company can be mapped onto another, because they’re technically not selling the same thing. What’s more, Impossible’s soy protein is genetically modified, which will face harsher scrutiny from both the Chinese government and a skeptical public; despite assurances that genetically modified foods are safe, many consumers still have concerns.
Meat is often eaten off the bone in China. This means that the Chinese public might be more hesitant to embrace Beyond and Impossible meat in its current form, which is sold ground or as patties and sausages. Ideally, plant-based products would be able to replicate the experience of eating bone-in meat—that is, if these plant-based companies want to win over not only existing vegetarians but enthusiastic meat-eaters as well.
Labeling will also be an important aspect of expanding the business. Some consumers have noted that it’s difficult to tell from the ingredients list whether Beyond Meat complies with the Buddhist diet, which rejects the use of certain seasonings. If it isn’t compliant—or even if it is unclear whether it is—the product could lose out on millions of potential customers.
There are lots of other interesting points raised by the Times article, and it’s an overall fascinating read. It’s too soon to tell just how these relatively new meat-free products will fare in the world’s top meat-consuming nation, but it’s worth thinking about how the food we encounter every day becomes part of our identity in ways that trendy substitutes might not be able to shake.