Will Clean Meat Make the Cut in Asia?

Published on 08 Jul, 2019

There are clear signs that clean meat is set to debut in Asia. San Francisco-based company JUST announced plans to introduce its cultured chicken nuggets in Asia sometime this year. Going by the fact that JUST’s chicken nuggets have passed the taste test and considering the first set of favorable data on public acceptance of clean meat in India and China, the signs appear positive.

A pertinent question at this point is: is the chain of events actually substantiated or is it what the industry and media would like us to believe? Let us dig deeper to get more clarity.

JUST (previously known as Hampton Creek) has been in the news for quite some time—CEO Josh Tetrick has been tweeting since 2017 about the imminent launch of clean meat chicken nuggets. The company currently sells vegan mayo and eggs in the US and is rapidly growing its manufacturing capabilities and sales in China. Therefore, logically, when Tetrick speaks of launching clean meat chicken nuggets in Asia, China makes a good case. However, given the Chinese government’s agreement with Israel to import clean meat products in China, the likelihood of JUST’s entry in the country certainly diminishes. The other viable option is Hong Kong as it is a free market for many industries, including food, and is not heavily regulated.

The next question then is even if the launch sees the light of the day this year, how do pricing and public perception play out?

Right now we do not have enough data on public acceptance of clean meat in Asia. The recent report which the industry is talking about is very clearly skewed toward the urban, educated class (as participants belonged to this group) in both China and India and, therefore, may not be a true indicator of clean meat acceptance in these countries. The assumption that the urban class is the actual consumer of clean meat products supports the ‘elitist theory’ as suggested by some researchers in this domain. Another aspect that has not been factored in is the significance of clean labelling in the food industry. People are more aware now and want to understand what goes into their food. However, this does not seem possible with proprietary cell culture medium and cells used in clean meat products, as the long-term effects of the new technology are not known yet, leaving a grey area for consumers. Even if Asian consumers do pick up the product from supermarket aisles for the first time due to its novelty factor, repeat purchase would certainly be dictated by pricing. For example, McDonald’s sells 6 pieces of chicken nuggets in Hong Kong for HKD22 (approximately USD3). By comparison, each cell-cultured chicken nugget produced by JUST is currently priced at USD100!

It would be safe to say that the launch, if it happens, would be premature and may not be the ideal way to test the waters. A more balanced approach would be to create awareness and acceptance among the public for simpler products such as cultured eggs and milk before moving to meat. In our opinion, realistically speaking, clean meat acceptance even as a mainstay additional meat source is at least a decade away. Paradoxically, to quote Josh Tetrick from one of his interviews: “Some day–it could be 10 years from now, 20 years from now–will not have required a single animal. Will not have required confinement and all the environmental issues… the technology is there to do it. I think the will from society is there to do it.”