Editorial note: This story is the last of Initium's three, comprehensive installments on the changing nature of meat production and consumption in China (with an eye to One Health). It is translated from Chinese.
"You don't notice the texture of the meat in the wonton because there are chopped vegetables in the filling, and it even has a chewy texture similar to traditional meat. But when it's an individual piece of chicken, it's obvious that it's not 'real meat.'"
In Koko's imagination, lab-grown meat "does not involve killing" and "tastes exactly like real meat," but when she tried cell-cultured meat for the first time, she found it had a subtle flavor. Koko, a Taiwanese woman who works in the catering industry in Singapore, was curious enough to try the samples and even called on her more ambivalent colleagues to dig in. The chicken cutlet looked exactly the same as a "real" one, only smaller.
But after one bite, the colleague clearly looked puzzled: "Vegan, right?"
Cell-cultured meat is a type of "alternative protein," where specific animal cells are extracted and cultured into whole pieces of meat in laboratory settings. Currently, Singapore is the only country in the world that has approved the introduction of cultured meat into the consumer market. In addition to cell-cultured grown meat, alternative proteins include plant-based meat, which has already become popular in various countries in only a few years, as wel as fermented proteins. The latter has seen an increase in interest in recent years and involves the fermentation of microorganisms, such as yeast, which then later form dense plant or animal proteins. Some research teams are also looking at ways to create stand-alone protein products derived from fermentation technology.
With the climate crisis and frequent occurrence of extreme weather these days, more people are being alerted to the role of livestock in global warming. Approximately 14.5% of human greenhouse gas emissions are ascribed to the livestock industry, and many livestock producers are themselves concerned about carbon reduction and the overuse of land and water resources. At the same time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that the global (human) population may exceed 9 billion by 2050, and the expansion of animal agriculture may require even more land and water still. It might also mean that more animals will be kept in confined spaces where animal welfare is a secondary consideration. This form of intensive “factory” farming involves the heavy use or abuse of antibiotics to ensure that animals are at least superficially free of disease. Clearly, the sustainability of food is an enormous challenge ahead. At the same time, the not-quite-over COVID-19 pandemic is also a telling reminder that humanity will continue to pay the price if meat safety remains largely ignored.
So, can meat be cleaner, safer and better for the environment? Is there a solution to meat consumption that goes beyond the expansion of animal agriculture? Scientists, startups and environmental groups are trying to answer this question and in so doing revolutionize the food system. Plant-based meat, which does not rely solely on plant proteins but tries to be more "meat-like," has received an influx of capital and is starting to appear in major supermarkets around the world. Meanwhile, the development of cultured meat, or ”fermented proteins,” where meat is “brewed" like beer, is no longer just a figment of our imagination.
Theoretically, whether plant-based or cultured in origin, such meat is free from animal flesh, free from pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella, a much lower source of emissions, and can also be stored for longer periods of time. But it will not be easy to fully realize this vision. In addition to technology, alt-meat researchers and developers will need to break through the barriers of building new industry standards, lowering market prices and bridging the gap between cultural awareness and consumer demand.
In reality, although Beyond Meat, the biggest name in plant-based meat globally, saw a growth of 163% in share prices on the first day of its public listing in 2019, the company announced it would cut 4% of its staff in August 2022. Since the start of this year, its share price has fallen by over 50%, and its CEO Ethan Brown said in a statement that time was required for increasing public acceptance of plant-based alternative protein - more time than expected. Meanwhile, to cut costs and to explore mass production, GOOD Meat, the only cultivated meat company in the market currently, only sells its products direct-to-consumers in Singapore.
Cultural differences: The dilemma created by East Asian food traditions
Koko is a meat lover on most days, but a family member has opted to stop eating meat after watching a film on animal slaughter, so Koko occasionally partakes in vegetarian meals during family gatherings. In addition to GOOD Meat’s lab-grown chicken, Koko has also bought plant-based meat products from other brands at the supermaket. Because of the attempts by producers to lower prices in recent years, the OmniFoods fish fillet and pork strips that Koko has bought are priced similarly to conventional meat products.
But compared to pricier, tastier cultivated meat, Koko is slightly disappointed with the plant-based meat she has purchased. “Maybe I didn’t prepare it the right way – the fish fillet had a strong taste,” Koko said as she put the fillet into an air fryer, but after the first bite, the rest went back into the fridge.
“I think vegetarian mock meat tastes better,” Koko, who prefers lighter tastes, said.
Plant-based meat is different from the vegetarian alternative proteins and other soy food products that are common on East Asian dining tables in both production technique and concept. Plant-based meat was created to replace traditional animal meat, which is why plant protein is extracted in the production process, and then extruded under heat to increase the density of the protein structure; plant-based meat and other flavoring is added to create a texture similar to animal meat. Soy-based alt-meat products, on the other hand, have a less complex production process, resulting in a more powdery and spongy texture.
Comparisons, however, are inevitable, given the vast array of soy-based products in East Asian cuisine including vegetarian chicken, crab sticks, dried bean curd, bean curd, and spicy snack strips made from soy.
“In the West, plant-based meat is plant-based meat, and tofu is tofu, there’s no such thing as traditional vegetarian mock meat. Only people in East Asia are puzzled by the concept of plant-based meat, thinking it’s a soy food product,” said Doris Lee, CEO of GFIC, a consultancy specializing in the alternative protein industry.
These doubts lead not just to comparisons in taste between the two, they also influence consumer expectations. Lee said for East Asian consumers, plant-based meat represents their vision of “new technology meat products”, while the soy products are quotidian, even cheap – so if the more expensive plant-based meat isn’t as tasty as they imagined, consumers feel disappointed.
In contrast, plant-based meat came into being in the West with the development of the environmental and animal welfare movements. Demand came first from vegans and vegetarians before plant-based substitutes gradually developed, followed by the appearance of alternative protein. Plant-based meat and other alternative protein food products target not only vegetarians – they were developed for people who habitually eat meat.
“Alternative protein or plant-based meat makes it possible to make a moral choice without having to turn vegetarian, or to sacrifice the enjoyment of meat, by offering a substitute,” said Doris Lee, “I think this is the key underlying principle.”
When plant-based meat entered East Asian markets, however, the actual consumers are quite different from the expected target segment.
No Meating, a plant-based meat brand from Taiwan, revealed they had done a survey covering some 1,500 respondents prior to raising funds. The survey results showed vegetarians made up the majority of consumers; but a significant proportion were consumers who “did not want to eat meat, but didn’t know what else to eat, and were worried they might lack protein”. OmniFoods, another purveyor of plant-based meat, said that in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other markets, environmental protection and food safety were indeed the main considerations; but health, cultural, and religious reasons also played an important part in local consumers’ willingness to purchase over the long term.
Relying solely on environmental protection and animal welfare to appeal to consumers in East Asian markets seems ineffective, given the similarity in taste and texture of plant-based meat to everyday soy food products. So “low fat”, “high protein” and other nutritional hooks have been put into play by plant-based meat makers. Taking mainland China as an example, Bloomberg Businessweek and Starfield – a plant-based meat company, published a joint study showing that half of the repeat buyers of plant-based meat were motivated by health considerations, while 27% of consumers were focused on environmental protection. Amongst those who cited healthiness as the main factor, nearly 70% made their choice based on the low-calorie low-fat labeling.
Technology, cost, taste: Why is meat so hard to replace?
Unlike the unexpected comparisons with traditional soy food products, alternative protein’s comparison with real meat is wholly expected, especially in terms of “meatiness.”
Plant-based meat is primarily produced through extrusion technology, electrospinning, 3D printing and other technologies, to different effect. According to Neoplant, a maker of plant-based meat, early generation plant-based meat produced by single-screw extruder was “tasty, but lacking in chewiness,” and the latest three-screw extruder produced results that were “not good, maybe even worse.” 3D printing offers higher precision, but the disadvantages are lower efficiency and high cost. In addition, flavoring, composition, and formulation all affect taste.
To neutralize the natural odor of soy, Hong Kong-based OmniFoods combines the isolated protein found in soybean and adds oil, seaweed and other ingredients to give their product an umami boost. Taiwan’s Neoplant uses the qualities of each type of meat as a reference, such as the length and toughness of the fibers and color, and then adds what’s necessary to reproduce these qualities to increase its similarity to animal meat. “When we need a red coloring, we add beet; for a coffee hue, we use cocoa,” reports the company’s promotional copy.
The brand Impossible Foods also uses genetically modified soy leghemoglobin to produce the red coloring that gives its plant-based burgers the same “bloodiness” as a real beef patty.
No Meating stated, “The difficulty is in balancing price and taste.” At present, the cost of producing plant-based meat is higher than traditional meat products; this has to do with the fact that all soy protein and other ingredients have to be imported in Taiwan. Secondly, manufacturing equipment also has to be imported or customized, as it has an impact on the dryness, thickness, and other aspects of product quality. Training researchers also adds to cost.
Neoplant is facing a similar conundrum. Consumers often ask: “Why should I spend more money on a piece of designer meat, a piece of fake meat?” Neoplant has lowered its costs to below that of beef production, and they are working towards reaching parity pricing with conventional meat. OmniFoods has also adjusted the price of OmniPork downwards by 22%, taking prices to near-parity with the price of pork in Hong Kong.
“Consumers might not find plant-based meat less tasty, but that it falls short of expectations,” said Doris Lee. With the region’s long-standing culture of soy food products, plant-based meat makers need to invest more in R&D, tweak taste profiles, and lower costs to draw East Asian consumers; ideally, they should work with the F&B industry to develop menus that would differentiate their products from soy-based substitutes, and also to attain their goal of replacing meat.
But before technology and palates are fully in place, investment has come rushing in.
Since 2019 when Beyond Meat became the first publicly listed plant-based meat company, investments have been flowing rapidly into the sector. According to data from the Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit organization, total investment in the plant-based meat sector in Asia Pacific was shy of US$50 million, but two years later in 2021, the figure had already exceeded US$200 million. In mainland China, between December 2019 and December 2020, there was a five-fold increase in the number of investment events in the sector to reach 21 – making up 10% of the total investments in the food and health food product sector – it’s also why 2020 became known as the year of plant-based meat in mainland China.
The heat in the sector was quick to subside, however, with the impact of the pandemic and the cooling down of consumer sentiment. At a private launch event in 2021, one plant-based meat entrepreneur described the industry thus, “Investors are very excited, but consumers are very cool to it.” On popular social media channels such as Weibo and Xiaohongshu, many official channels of plant-based meat companies have not been updated since 2021.
As Doris Lee sees it, the wave of popularity of plant-based meat in mainland China is somewhat immature, accelerated by the bubble of investment capital, with huge discrepancies existing between the different products available on the market. “Many consumers who don’t find it tasty on the first try won’t give it a second try, so this will dampen the appeal of all the products in the sector,” said Lee. “Maybe the current cooling down is also a good opportunity for things to settle.”
While the development of plant-based meat is at an impasse, explorations of other means of growing alt-meat in laboratories are ongoing. Cell-cultured meat is one example.
In 2005, four biomedical researchers published their first paper on producing cell-cultured meat with the support of the Dutch government. In theory, all that needs to be done is locate suitable animal cells, extract and separate them, affix the samples on a growth scaffold, and minced meat can be cultivated – but cuts of meat with networks of tiny blood vessels cannot be produced through simple cell cultivation. It was only in 2013 that the first cell-cultured meat hamburger came into existence - at a cost of more than US$300,000.
It’s plain to see how the price challenge is greater for cell-cultured meat than plant-based meat.
Advocates for cultivated meat pointed out that hundreds of millions of US dollars were also spent on scanning the first human genome, but the technology has now become so affordable that anyone can submit a saliva sample for testing for just a few hundred bucks. They argue that the same logic applies to cultivated meat – as technology advances and mass production becomes possible, unit prices will come tumbling down. The most costly part of the production process at the moment is the cultivation medium, and so far, that part of cost does not look set for a sharp reduction.
In 2013, the growth medium used to produce the first cell-cultivated meat was fetal bovine serum, obtained through an extraordinarily brutal method: slaughtering a pregnant cow and removing its fetus to extract its blood serum. Not only is the process of obtaining it cruel, the fetal bovine serum was also used up very quickly; the serum of one bovine fetus can only produce 1000g of meat. As the technology developed, the culture medium no longer required fetal bovine serum, but the manufacture process is still highly complex.
Hong Kong-based Avant Meats, uses a medium composed of glucose, minerals, amino acids, vitamins and proteins for its cultivated fish. The meat is developed with a suitable scaffold and a bioreactor. The company has had to work with other biotech companies producing the growth medium to ensure a steady supply – many of these companies, however, are in the pharmaceutical industry and the prices they charge tend to be high.
“The initial stages of development of the cultivated meat sector is similar to the medical industry, and the later stages are similar to the food industry, so it’s a cross-disciplinary matter,” said Doris Lee. “If it were medicine, you could charge more, but as a food product, prices need to be cheaper.”
GOOD Meat is the only cultivated meat company to enter Singapore so far. Since its December 2020 launch in the country, it has worked with 1880, Keng Eng Kee and other restaurants. But to cut costs and explore mass production, GOOD Meat is now open only for direct deliveries once a week on Thursdays starting at 11am.
At the moment, many in the sector are pinning hopes on fermentation-derived protein. Generally speaking, there are two ways the technology is employed. The first is locating a suitable mycelium (the part of a fungus that provides growth nutrients) and leaving it to reproduce itself in a mold, which will later grow into a high-protein food – but the result will taste like a mushroom. The second is using protein recombinant technology to transform yeast and other microorganisms into a form that can be combined with sugar and other ingredients through fermentation, similar to the production of alcohol, to produce specific proteins.
Bacon made from mycelium has already been produced, but the technology is still at an exploratory stage right now. In recombinant protein fermentation, modifying the bacteria involves genetic engineering – although the bacteria is only used as a catalyst and neither the other ingredients nor the end-product involves genetic engineering. The mere mention of "genetic engineering" at any stage would raise red flags in many parts of the world, though. Perfect Day, a US and Hong Kong joint venture, has so far succeeded in producing milk that does not require a dairy cow, as well as other dairy products such as ice cream using recombinant protein fermentation. But because regulations differ across the world, the products are only sold in Hong Kong and the US.
Although 2021 saw huge amounts of investment pouring into the fermentation-derived protein sector, and it has already received almost the same amount of investment as the plant-based meat sector, most of the funds have flowed to North America and Europe, and the sector is still nascent in Asia Pacific.
As the players in the alt-meat field work to reduce costs and prices, there are also research teams who believe that the current prices of conventional meat do not reflect the ecological cost of greenhouse gas emissions. One such team, based in Germany, projected that if conventional meat prices took into account the cost of carbon emissions, the price of steaks would increase by 146%, while dairy products would cost 91% more. From this life cycle perspective, the actual price difference between conventional and alternative proteins may be much more significant.
New name, new brand, new game
With the emergence of new forms of food, food inspection standards and even naming have become points of contention for government regulators, manufacturers and other stakeholders.
In 2021, some state legislatures in the United States proposed restricting the use of words such as “meat,” “chicken” and “beef” in naming plant-based meat products, but the bill was not passed. In May the same year, Europe withdrew a proposed amendment restricting the use of terms for describing dairy products for plant-based milk. But discussions on labeling plant-based meat and seafood are still ongoing in France and Belgium.
“Plant meat was originally meant as a meat substitute, if you can’t call it ‘meat,’ the impact would be huge,” said Doris Lee, “If you can’t call it ‘plant-based meat’ what are you going to call it – ‘plant extruded protein’? You would need to spend a lot on educating consumers if you use these types of names, they wouldn’t be able to imagine the consumption scenarios.”
The manufacturers are of the same view naturally. OmniFoods has a product named OmniPork, which is meant to be prepared the same way as pork. No Meating even described its beef patty as “even meatier than meat” in its advertising.
Things get even trickier with cell-cultured meat. After all, using biology jargon such as “cell-cultivated” to describe food hardly makes it more appetizing. But product labeling is not just the prerogative of manufacturers, it should also providing information to consumers, and most people would agree that consumers have the right to know the where their food comes from.
In the early days, one name bandied about was “clean meat”; it had the same connotations as clean energy, highlighting the “clean”, slaughter-free, germ-free aspects of plant-based food products. “Cultivated meat,” “cell-based meat,” and other descriptors followed. The plant-based meat product that Koko purchased in Singapore was labeled “cultured chicken dumplings.”
“The ‘clean’ in clean meat is subjective, while ‘cultivated’ has also been used in labeling seafood – so this is a relatively transparent way of presenting the production process, without characterizing its links to the laboratory.” Lee also said most of the players in the industry are leaning towards describing their products ass “cultivated meat” at the moment.
At the same time, cultivated meat and fermentation-derived proteins are new forms of food that also require new corresponding food inspection standards to be put in place. Because of the technology used in production, there also exists a question of whether these new forms of food should come under the charge of the pharmaceutical regulators or food regulators.
Hong Kong-based Avant Meats said they and many other companies are at the stage of building plants. Their production is currently limited to small-batch, small-volume pilots; and as Singapore is currently the only country that has approved the sales of cell-cultivated meat, it would be their first destination. In Singapore, the inspection standards that apply are those set by the Singapore Food Authority (SFA).
Singapore was able to accelerate regulatory standards because of its political environment and resources. Soybean, meats, and food all have to be imported into the country, so food supply security is a crucial part of its policymaking. Israel is in a similar situation, that’s why many startups in the sector have chosen to incubate in these two countries.
Other countries have also stepped up the regulatory pace. For instance, Japan’s Cellular Agriculture Institute of the Commons (CAIC) is working with the industry, government, and academic institutions to come up with regulatory standards for cultivated meat; in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working together to set up an inter-agency working group; the UK is planning to set up a separate regulatory framework for cultivated meat.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in China has included cultivated meat in its 14th Five-Year Plan in December 2021, setting out a development blueprint for the sector and categorizing it as a “national key development area.” However, it has yet to issue any document on regulatory standards. In spite of this, several startups have already taken the plunge. Joes Future Foods, one such early mover in China, told the media that they were expecting to launch in 2024.
“Vegetarianism is a conspiracy of plant-based meat companies in the West!”
In early 2020, the CEO of Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, said in an interview with the New York Times, “Every time someone in China eats a piece of meat, a little puff of smoke goes up in the Amazon,” drawing considerable backlash from China.”
The Global Times, a government-endorsed media in China, published an article in 2021 proclaiming that criticizing the consumption of meat in China for environmental reasons was “Western hypocrisy.” The article compared the consumption of beef in the US with that of China, before surmising that meat consumption in developed countries had a bigger impact on the environment.
On top of this clash of idealism, the rise of plant-based meat in recent years has also been mired in controversy: often described as healthy, high-protein, low-fat, in its publicity in East Asia, the concept has drawn accusations of middle-class hypocrisy, and refrains of “why not just go vegetarian?”
Alternative protein products were developed with the original intention of replacing the current meat production chain, so that the meat we eat can be free of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, free from industrial livestock farming with its frequent overuse of antibiotics and other drugs. At the same time, manufacturers seeking to start a food revolution are still being tested by challenges in finding the right price point, transparency in their processes, regulatory standards, the actual products' taste, consumer education and public relations.
On top of that, the companies Initium spoke to all mentioned the current difficulties caused by disruptions in raw material supply chains brought about by the pandemic and global geopolitics.
So, wow far are we from future meat? For the answer to emerge, we will have to continue to peel back layers of technology, finance, culture, politics and more.
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Chinese by Initium Media on September 29, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Burgers made with cultivated meat brand Beyond Meat / Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.