China has released its first group standards for plant-based meat, taking the first step in regulating the fledgling industry.
The standards, published by the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology in late December, were drafted by experts from institutes like the China Agricultural University and involved companies such as Unilever, Cargill, and Nestle.
The plant-based meat industry is drawing both startups and established food manufacturers in China, which accounts for 27% of the world's meat consumption by volume.
Rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to unhealthy lifestyles and diets, coupled with repeated bouts of avian and swine flu in recent years, have sparked demand among health-conscious consumers for alternative food choices.
More than 70% of Chinese consumers believe that artificial meat can replace processed meat products, according to a survey by market researcher Ipsos. Almost nine in 10 consumers in the survey say they are changing or are willing to change their meat consumption habits.
Food companies have been stepping up their investments to meet the growing demand.
Nestle announced in May 2020 totaling it will build its first production line in Asia for plant-based products in Tianjin.
Beyond Meat, the U.S. plant-based burger and sausage maker, said in September 2020 that it was building two factories near Shanghai. Its products are sold in China through Starbucks, KFC, Pizza, and Taco Bell.
The standards define plant-based meat products as those whose source of protein and fat comes from plant-based raw materials such as beans, cereals, algae, and fungi. The standards require plant-based meat products clearly state the use of plant-based raw materials.
Specifically, plant-based meat products could use "plant xx", "plant-based xx", "plant protein xx" "xx made of plants" and other ways to name the products. Words such as "vegetarian" could be used to help consumers make a distinction from animal-based meat. Examples include "plant-based beef" or "plant sausages."
The standards also set parameters for the nutritional content. Every 100 grams of non-breaded plant-based livestock and poultry meat products, breaded plant-based livestock and poultry meat products, and plant-based aquatic products should contain no less than 10 grams, 8 grams, and 8 grams of protein, respectively.
Guo Shuntang, a professor at the School of Food Science and Nutrition Engineering at China Agricultural University, a main drafter of the standards, said in an interview with Chinese media that having a set of rules was necessary to ensure the healthy growth of the industry.
"What we are most worried about is that this industry is not standardized, and there would be speculative investment for profit instead of a focus on quality and technology," said Guo. "In that case, consumers would gradually move away, which could ruin the industry."
He added that group standards would gradually develop into industry standards and national standards to regulate corporate behavior better.
The Chinese standards are similar to those in the U.S. The Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA), the trade association representing more than 160 plant-based food companies, in 2019 released the first voluntary standards for the labeling of plant-based meat alternatives, which allow for references to the type of animal-meat (i.e. "meat, "chicken," "hamburger," etc.) and the form of the product (i.e. "nuggets," "burger," etc.) along with a qualifier that clearly indicates that the food is plant-based or vegetarian.
The E.U. currently bans terms such as "yogurt-style" or "cheese-style" for non-dairy imitation replacements in labeling plant-based products. Japan last year established a public-private partnership to develop regulations for insect-based and plant-based foods.