As European meat-lovers resist change, Asia shows biggest appetite for plant-based future

An onslaught of Covid-19 disruptions to food supplies and new meat-free innovations haven’t managed to shift European appetites away from their home comforts. Meanwhile, Asia shows more growth potential for vegan meat.

Butcher's shop in Europpe
Far from ditching meat, consumption continues to grow across Europe. Meat sales increased 15 to 20 per cent in the first three quarters of 2020. Image: Tetyana Bunyak/Flickr

Despite a tumultuous year globally for the meat industry, European food habits avoided large scale disruption with meat sales surging amid lockdowns in 2020.

Far from ditching meat, consumption continues to grow across Europe. Meat sales increased 15 to 20 per cent in the first three quarters of 2020, based on a rise in retail growth, according to Nan-Dirk Mulder, senior global specialist Animal Protein at Rabobank, a Dutch multinational bank that specialises in the agricultural sector.

“If you look to the market in 2020, we think there will have been a drop in meat consumption overall … that is quite new, because if you look long-term in Europe, meat consumption has been growing every year more or less,” he says. “Growth will return in the market, but this year meat sales will drop a bit because of [the lack of] food services… because people can’t go to restaurants.”

Lockdown fuels meat sales

The European Environment Agency (EEA) forecasts meat consumption to increase globally until 2050, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of rich countries, puts meat sales up around 15 per cent in the decade to 2027.

That is a problem for global plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2019, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that progress to meet greenhouse-gas emissions would fail without changing farm practices and human diets. Specifically, moving away from meat-based diets. Many expected the coronavirus pandemic to shift consumers away from meat with unease about food processing, working conditions and the impact of meat consumption on the environment. Furthermore, threats have emerged from plant-based meat substitutes, rising consumer concerns about meat-based diets, and the closing down of food services due to the coronavirus restrictions. 

Asian consumers are much more open to innovation and trying new things than Europeans and Americans. They’re used to the idea of a plant-based substitute.

Julian Mellentin, founder, New Nutrition Business

However, according to researcher Kantar sales of turkeys were up 36 per cent on 2019 in the United Kingdom, and sales of red meat and poultry grew by more than 10 per cent each month until September. In the United States, where meat plants battled coronavirus outbreaks, plant-based meat sales skyrocketed 261 per cent during lockdown, while meat sales also jumped 51 per cent by dollar amount and 37 per cent by volume year over year for the week ended May 3.

Beyond the impossible

While meat is still a popular protein, European diets are slowly changing. The region now accounts for 39 per cent of global sales of meat substitutes.

The launch of the Impossible 2.0 burger in 2019 by the US-based meat-free food manufacturer Impossible foods spiked new interest in meat alternatives. But there’s a long way to go before vegan meat replaces the real thing. The market for alternative protein is approximately $2.2 billion compared with a global meat market of approximately $1.7 trillion, according to McKinsey.

Not everyone is convinced that plant-based meat has gained real traction among Europe’s meat aficionados. Julian Mellentin, founder of New Nutrition Business, a food consulting company, says plant-based meat substitutes have yet to align with the “beliefs and needs” of European consumers, particularly in Southern Europe. “Food culture is really important across Europe… it is a big part of people’s lives. And you don’t transform food culture quickly, it can take a very long time,” he says. “And if food culture transforms, it’s because the new thing that’s come along tastes fantastic. These new [meatless] products haven’t yet delivered on taste yet.”

Asia has now emerged as a new frontier in the fight to convert meat eaters. In October 2020, Impossible Foods launched its plant-based beef burgers in supermarkets in Hong Kong and Singapore. Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown has called Asia “critical” to achieving the company’s mission of removing animals from the human diet, since 40 per cent of the world’s meat is consumed in Asia.

Beyond Meat, a plant-based US rival, launched a pork substitute, Beyond Pork, in Shanghai, in November 2020, while Omnipork, made by Hong Kong-based alternative protein company Green Monday, debuted a vegan luncheon meat in Asia in May. Other new meat alternative innovations are expected to enter the market in 2021. The San Francisco-based Eat Just recently received approval from Singapore’s Food Agency to sell lab-grown meat as an ingredient in chicken nuggets.

Mellentin says that alternative meat products have been boosted by more than $16 billion in venture capital funding between 2009 and 2018; 80 per cent of which was invested since 2017.

While Asia is expected to drive global demand for meat over the next decade, Mellentin says that says Asia may offer more fertile soil for plant-based meats as interest in non-animal proteins continues to increase.

“I think the difference with Asia is that Asian consumers are much more open to innovation and trying new things than Europeans and Americans,” he says. “But also they’re used to the idea of a plant-based substitute — soya curd and tempe, for example — in their diets. It makes it easier to accept. Also it helps that Asian food, with all of its spices and herbs, tastes fantastic.”

Meat industry pivots

Many large meat manufacturers have steadily been developing their own meat-free strategies to cash in on the move away from meat, according to Mulder. “All meat producers, companies have plans to work in this category, adding additional food products of their own,” he says.

To extend its reach into Europe, Beyond Meat partnered with a traditional Dutch meat manufacturer, Zandbergen. Production started in 2020 at a manufacturing plant in Zoeterwoude, the Netherlands, the first such Beyond Meat plant outside the US.

Such partnerships are going to help leverage distribution channels to reach meat consumers as competition develops between traditional meat products and new plant-based innovations, a win-win for both.

“The focus is a lot on these Silicon Valley companies,” says Mulder. “But there is also a lot of innovation coming from meat companies developing their own meat-free products, which will only grow.”

He adds: “I don’t believe that in 10 years from now, the position of alternative proteins will be bigger… but it’s not really threatening the position of animal proteins. The change will happen, but not at the speed that people suggest.”

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