Member AUM
$70 trillion
17 July 2020
Key Topic(s)
Alternative Proteins

Starfield is a plant-based meat pioneer brand with its own R&D capability and production base in China. Starfield is innovating plant-based meat through the use of molecular sensory techniques, which create a striking similarity between plant-based meat and real meat in colour, flavour and taste, without the need to use artificial food flavouring. Starfield’s vision is to promote a better lifestyle for human beings, one that is both healthy for humans and environmentally friendly, as well as kind to animals.

Interview with Cross Chen, co-founder of Starfield

How is COVID-19 impacting the food industry and, more specifically, meat and dairy consumption? How are food businesses in Asia responding?

In the first and second quarters of 2020, consumption at restaurants declined sharply due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pork consumption became significantly suppressed and at the same time, the supply of pork decreased, which led to higher pork prices. As a result, the home consumption of pork also decreased. China is a major consumer of pork but in light of the pandemic, the overall consumption of meat and dairy products in the first quarter of 2020 was lower compared to the previous year.

As far as we know, COVID-19 intensely affects the foodservice industry and the whole retailing sector in China due to government regulation at this time. Specifically, restaurants are facing a serious business and financial crisis of late because people have not been allowed to get together for meals. At the same time, people have started to cook more often. Consequently, e-commerce that meets the demand for “non-contact” services and “new retail supermarkets” with instant delivery/home delivery services have experienced explosive growth, satisfying people’s dietary needs at home.

In your view, how do you think COVID-19 will impact the plant-based market in China and, more broadly, in Asia? What opportunities do you see for innovative companies like yours, and how has this evolved in the last twelve months?

Since there is a theory speculating that COVID-19 may arise from wild animals, people have begun to pay more attention to what they eat and whether the food they eat is healthy.

Plant-based products can eliminate the use of additives such as antibiotics, hormones, and other animal products in the production process. As the ingredients are derived directly from plants, companies can effectively respond to food safety issues. In addition, because plant-based products contain dietary fibre, no cholesterol, and other nutrients with specific advantages over animal products, it is feasible for people with health requirements to replace real meat with plant-based alternatives. In view of the above reasons, plant-based brands in the Chinese market have experienced a leapfrog type of development over the last year.

Innovative companies such as Starfield can use high-tech means to extract the flavour molecules in plants using molecular sensory techniques and turn them into plant-based meat. This is a cutting-edge area, which is undoubtedly very interesting to curious young-generation consumers. Starfield has, therefore, chosen to cooperate with well-known restaurant chains in China to provide innovative plant-based meat meals, to educate the market, to create consumer awareness and by extension, to make an effective contribution to the development of the alternative protein sector in China.

In 2020, we have seen the number of plant-based product launches increase significantly in China; have you seen demand for your product increasing? How do you think this will evolve in the short-term? 

In the process of launching plant-based meat meals with well-known foodservice brands, we have found out that consumer awareness (of plant-based meat) in the Chinese market is still largely absent. In general, consumers do not have sufficient knowledge of plant-based meat, including nutritional ingredients and their effects on human health, global warming and animal welfare. From a mainstream consumer perspective, an understanding of these effects is apparently not compelling enough for them to make purchase decisions. However, our experience has told us that these consumers are quite willing to try plant-based meat products if such products can demonstrate great improvement in taste and flavour compared to traditional vegetarian meat. With the participation of foodservice giants such as KFC, Starbucks, and Papa Johns in this nascent sector, plant-based meat has been increasingly put up to face more and more mainstream consumers.

We can feel that these consumers are going through the phase where they attempt to try and understand plant-based meat as an innovative and desirable product if correctly steered. We believe that in the short term – assuming mainstream consumers continue to educate themselves about plant-based meat and alternative protein brands – they will conscientiously begin to include more plant-based meat products a part of their diets to meet their meat consumption needs, whether as a novelty dish or for the sake of health and food safety. As far as we can see, this is clearly where and how things will evolve going forward.

Over the last year, some plant-based products have come under increased media scrutiny due to the processed nature of the products. How are you improving the nutritional profile of your products?

This is a question about scientific research and production applications. In terms of scientific research, at present, we have cooperated with a team of highly advanced and senior university professors in the applications of plant protein and flavour molecules in China. With that, we aim to establish our plant-based protein database, which can reach a new level in product nutrition.

In terms of production, we have invited third-party independent testing agencies to assess and test the nutritional content of the products produced so that we can monitor the quality of the products accordingly.

What is the company’s strategy to scale up, reduce costs and bring your products to mass market?

In December 2019, Starfield launched the 2.0 version of our plant-based meat product using a fragrance-free formula alongside molecular sensory technology to enhance the flavour of the product. The company began to cooperate with national food and beverage brands, such as Nayuki’s Tea (over 300 branches), Papa Johns (over 170 outlets), and HeyTea (close to 400 branches). The collaboration between Starfield and these national foodservice brands has greatly increased our shipments and helped manage the costs of our products to a certain economy of scale effect.

In the second half of 2020, version 3.0 of our plant-based meat product will be released and will use fat control technology to enhance the taste and flavour of plant-based meat fat products. In collaboration with a giant foodservice player with over 1,000 branches nationwide, the product will be introduced via the fast-food sector and thus, reach a wider range of consumers.

At the same time, we will develop a distributor network in the second half of 2020 to leverage both their customer bases and resources to expand our business, reach out to multiple types of customer groups, and effectively increase sales.

In addition to this, we have already developed two retail products and devised a plan to leverage both our online and offline channels and also, our branding strategy to reach more mainstream consumers. We will develop more retail products in the future to enhance our brand power and increase sales.

What work has your company done to estimate the resource intensity and environmental impact of your plant-based meat products vis-à-vis conventional meat and dairy products?

We currently use data from independent third-party industry reports to assess and mark the impact of our products in terms of improving the environment and reducing waste. In the future, we are inclined to help set up group or industry standards for plant-based meats through which we can further monitor the positive impact of plant-based meat versus real meat on resources and the environment.