China has few self-identified vegans and vegetarians but loves vegetables and plant-based foods. As the appetite for animal-free products and alternative proteins grows, effective labeling and marketing are crucial to getting through to the right consumers. There are currently limited requirements on the labeling and certification of vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based products in China, which can make understanding which standards to follow and how to certify products difficult. In this article, we discuss how to effectively label and market animal-free products in China and which food standards producers must comply with.
Vegetarianism and veganism in China today have not yet become mainstream habits, and is still limited to orthodox Buddhists and a small number of health and animal welfare-conscious consumers. However, due to the sheer size of China’s population, the absolute number of self-identified vegetarians and vegans is still substantial, estimated at around 50 million people.
Moreover, although the majority of people are as yet unwilling to go completely meat-free, there is a growing number of consumers that want to increase the proportion of plant-based food in their diet. China has the highest per capita consumption of vegetables in the world, and meat consumption remains lower than that of developed countries. In 2017, Chinese consumers ate an average of 377 kg of vegetables and just 60 kg of meat.
According to a survey conducted for the 2020 China Catering Industry Development Report by the World Federation of Chinese Catering Industry (WFCCI), 58 percent of people said they enjoyed vegetarian food despite not identifying as vegetarian or vegan. The increasing interest in plant-based foods among Chinese consumers can also be seen in the rapid growth of the plant-based meat and dairy market, which is projected to reach US$14.5 billion by 2025, according to food processing company ADM.
The growing interest in plant-based and cruelty-free products presents new growth opportunities for foreign vegan and plant-based brands to enter the Chinese market.
China does not have any mandatory requirements for the certification or labeling of vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based foods or cruelty-free products (hereinafter referred to collectively as “animal-free products”). However, industry associations have developed a number of voluntary standards for the certification and labeling of meat-free foods, which can be used as a reference for certification, labeling, and marketing. These guidelines also provide insight into how China’s regulators may dictate certification and labeling requirements in the future, especially as eating plant-based or animal-free food becomes more widespread.
It is also important to be aware that, although China does not implement any requirements for the labeling and certification of meat-free foods, it does have strict standards for nutritional labeling, which also applies to imported pre-packaged foods.
Finally, accurate and clear labeling can be an effective marketing tool for tapping into the growing number of environmentally aware and health-conscious consumers, especially as awareness of the differences between various products may be lower than in other markets.
In this article, we discuss how to effectively label, certify, and market meat-free foods by looking at the industry guidelines and consumer habits.
Marketing and labeling of vegan and vegetarian products
In May 2022, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a non-governmental organization affiliated with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), released the China Vegan Food Standards, the first set of voluntary standards for vegan foods to be published in China. The Vegan Food Standards are not an official food standard, but rather act as a set of guidelines for companies and organizations engaged in various types of vegan food operations by providing definitions, classifications, and production requirement standards. They also incorporate a broad range of official food safety standards, such as those for soy products, food additives, gluten products, and many more.
The Vegan Food Standards define vegan food as “food that only uses the seeds, fruits or tissue parts of plants as raw materials or components to provide energy or material sources for human beings directly or after processing, and does not use animal ingredients in the entire R&D and production process.”
The Vegan Food Standards provide a long list of vegan product categories, which include food additives, processed foods, soy products, fruits, vegetables, and nuts and products derived thereof, vegan aquatic products, oils, starches, condiments, instant foods, drinks, and more.
The categories provide a baseline for possible future certification standards and act as a guideline for the voluntary certification process.
Marketing and labeling of plant-based foods
China’s plant-based meat and meat alternatives market has taken off in recent years, as marked by the entry of several foreign plant-based meat brands, such as JUST Egg and Beyond Meat as well as the appearance of several home-grown plant-based meat companies, such as Zrou and Zhenmeat.
In 2021, the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFTS), a government-affiliated industry body under the CAST, released China’s first-ever voluntary standards for labeling and verifying plant-based foods, the General Principles for Plant-Based Food (the “General Principles”). Although they have not yet been adopted as an industry requirement, CIFTS’ role as an industry association is to advise the relevant government agencies, such as the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), on how to formulate standards and regulations for the food and food tech industries. The General Principles therefore provide insight into how China may regulate the plant-based food market in the future.
The General Principles provide guidelines on industry definitions, classifications, production requirements, and labeling, which we outline below.
The General Principles define plant-based foods as “Foods made from plant raw materials (including algae and fungi) or products thereof as sources of protein or fat, with or without added ingredients, processed in a certain way so as to achieve characteristics such as texture, flavor, and shape that are similar to certain animal-derived foods”.
Under the General Principles, plant-based foods are categorized as below:
- Plant-based meats, such as livestock, poultry, and seafood. Examples include plant-based beef and plant-based meatballs.
- Plant-based dairy products such as plant-based milk, yogurt, and cheese.
- Plant-based egg products such as plant-based liquid eggs.
- Plant-based frozen drinks and condiments such as plant-based ice-cream and ready-made ice-cream powder.
- Other plant-based foods.
3. Basic requirements.
The General Principles outline a series of basic requirements for the ingredients, processing, nutrition, additives, and safety of plant-based foods. The requirements are as follows:
- The proteins and fats [in plant-based foods] must be derived from plant materials, and must not contain any protein or fats derived from animals.
- [Plant-based foods] may introduce microorganisms via natural fermentation or inoculation, and may directly use ingredients of microbial origin. The strains of microorganisms used and ingredients derived from microorganisms must adhere to the national food safety standards and are limited to the strains approved for use in the food industry by the health administrative department of the State Council.
- The food safety indicators of the raw materials and final products must comply with the regulations of the corresponding national food safety standards.
- The use of food additives must match the type of raw materials and processing technology used and adhere to the GB 2760 standards [China Standards for the Use of Food Additives].
- The total amount of non-plant-derived ingredients introduced through microorganisms and microorganism-derived ingredients, food additives, and food nutrition fortifiers should be set at a reasonable level [specific level not specified].
- Plant-based foods can be used as a material for the production, processing, and preparation of other foods.
- Labeling requirements should adhere to the regulations of GB 7718 [General Rules for Labeling of Prepackaged Foods] and GB 28050-2011 [General Rules for Nutritional Labeling of Prepackaged Foods], as well as the requirements of the General Principles.
- Use terms such as “plant”, “plant-based”, “plant protein”, or “of plant origin/source” or use the specific plant-based ingredients or sources thereof to give the product a name that reflects the true attributes of the plant-based food; or use terms such as “plant”, “plant-based”, or “of plant origin/source”, or other additional wording in the same place as the product name to provide additional clarification.
- The name of the type of plant-based food product can be the same as the corresponding animal-based food product type, the name specified in relevant standards, or other equivalent names, but should also use terms such as “plant”, “plant-based”, “plant protein”, “of plant origin/source”, or the name specific plant-based ingredients or sources thereof to provide additional clarification.
- For other foods that use plant-based foods in their production, processing, or preparation, the plant-based properties of the corresponding raw materials should be clearly indicated to consumers in the same place as where the product name is featured.
Producers of plant-based meat must also ensure that the raw materials used in production comply with other mandatory and recommended standards and requirements that are not specific to animal-free foods. These standards include:
- Plant Protein for Food Processing [GB 20371-2016] for the raw materials used in plant-based meat.
- Bean Products [GB 2712-2014] for safety indicators of plant-based meat.
- Quick Frozen Prepared Food [SB/T 10379-2012] for products such as ready-to-eat frozen plant-based meat.
- Soy Protein Products [SB/T 10649-2012] for products ready-to-eat soy plant-based meat.
Nutritional labeling requirements
While there are no specific requirements for certifying or labeling meat-free products, China does have official standards and regulations on nutritional labeling. The main document that regulates nutritional labeling is the General Rules for Nutritional Labelling of Prepackaged Foods [GB 28050—2011] (the “Nutritional Rules”)]. The Nutritional Rules dictate how producers of pre-packaged foods must label the nutritional indicators and ingredients of the food products, including nutrients and nutrient amounts, ingredients, the nutrient reference value (NRV) (the percentage of a person’s daily recommended intake of a given nutrient that the product contains), and more.
The mandatory contents of nutrition labels of all prepackaged foods under the Nutritional Rules are:
- Energy [calories], content values of core nutrients, and their percentages in the NRV. When labeling other ingredients, an appropriate layout should be used to make energy and core nutrient labels more prominent.
- When making nutrition claims or nutrient function claims for nutrients other than energy and core nutrients, the content of the nutrient and its percentage in the NRV should also be indicated in the nutrient list.
- For prepackaged foods using nutritional fortifiers, the nutrient content in the fortified food and its percentage in the NRV must also be indicated in the nutrient composition table in addition to the standard nutrient labeling requirements [listed in item 1].
- When hydrogenated and/or partially hydrogenated oils and fats are added to the food or are used in the production process, the content of trans fats must also be indicated in the nutritional composition table.
- For the above-mentioned nutrients where the NRV percentage is not specified [such as trans fats], only the amount that the product contains is required to be displayed.
Certifying and labeling meat-free products
Most vegetarian products in China do not use an official meat-free certification on their packaging, and instead, choose to label the product clearly as vegetarian (素 su). Chinese consumers are familiar with this term in the context of meat substitutes, such as vegetarian “chicken” or “duck” (素鸡 suji and 素鸭 suya), as they are existing traditional ingredients in Chinese cuisine.
However, the term is rarely if ever applied to beverages and non-food products, such as cosmetics, textiles, and clothing, and it also does not delineate between vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based. Sometimes the term 纯素 chunsu is used to refer to vegan, but this may sometimes also indicate that the food does not contain pungent aromatics – onions, garlic, chives, and leeks – which are avoided by some practicing Buddhists. These terms can therefore be inadequate in accurately conveying the product and its ingredients.
Getting an official certification for meat-free products can therefore be an effective marketing tool and a means of assuring consumers of the safety and reliability of your products. The use of a meat-free or cruelty-free certification may also be important for the marketing of non-food products such as cosmetics and clothing, as Chinese consumers are not as familiar with the concept of veganism with regard to these types of products.
Vegan and vegetarian certifications can be done for a range of products, including food, beverages, cosmetics, textiles, and apparel. China recently abolished mandatory animal testing for certain imported cosmetic products, paving the way for cruelty-free cosmetics brands to enter the market.
As there are no official standards for the certification of meat-free products, different certification agencies will have different requirements for the certification products. For instance, the vegan certification institute VeganCAC (纯素认证) recommends the following requirements for certification:
- The product must not contain meat, seafood, any animal, egg products, dairy products, honey or honey products, or insect products;
- The product must not contain or be derived from animal hair;
- Suppliers and manufacturers must not conduct animal testing on raw materials or finished products or contain any animal genes; and
- All containers, utensils, and machinery used for both vegan and non-vegan food must be thoroughly sanitized and cleaned to reduce cross-contamination.
In China, certification can be done by an international agency and then filed and marketed by a domestic agent. Certification must be conducted in compliance with the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Certification and Accreditation.
Effective marketing to reach the right consumers
In addition to meeting national standards and voluntary guidelines for labeling and certification, there is also a range of best practices that companies can adopt to speak to Chinese consumers.
Looking at consumer attitudes toward plant-based meat products, where the majority of research has been focused, we can see that the top reasons for purchasing plant-based meat substitutes are health and weight loss, rather than a concern for sustainability and animal welfare. In a survey conducted by market research firm Ipsos, 61 percent of respondents said the reason they tried or purchased plant-based meat was that they believed it is beneficial to their health, while 54 percent said it was because it could aid with weight loss. By comparison, only 41 percent of respondents cited environment and animal welfare protection as a rationale.
Moreover, a major inhibitor to the broader uptake of plant-based diets in China is the widespread belief that vegetarian and vegan diets cannot provide adequate nutrition. For this reason, it is advisable to focus on the nutritional components – especially protein – and health benefits when labeling and marketing vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based products, provided they comply with China’s nutritional labeling standards.
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.