Rising income levels may be resulting in more meat consumption in China, but there are more factors at play in the evolution of Chinese demand for meat.
China is the world’s largest consumer of meat. In 2021, China consumed almost 100 million tons of it – 27% of the world’s total. This figure will rise as income levels in the country continue to trend upwards.
China’s total meat consumption is double that consumed in the U.S., per capita meat consumption is approximately half that in the U.S., suggesting that there is significant room for consumption to rise.
But what’s driving China’s meat consumption? To answer that question, global consultancy, McKinsey & Company, surveyed 1,000 consumers in the country and compared the results to those from surveys of 4,000 consumers in Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S.
McKinsey & Company’s report offers a number of key findings:
Taking two directions
China’s meat-eating habits appear to be taking two distinct paths.
Fifty-seven percent of Chinese consumers eat meat regularly, consistent with rates in the U.S. and U.K, but higher than rates in most western peer markets. Meat remains central to these consumers’ diets.
Slightly less than half, however, were classed as conscious consumers, i.e., eating little or no meat. Many conscious consumers intend to reduce their meat consumption further, although not to the same degree as European consumers.
Why might Chinese consumers limit their meat intake? The survey found that they were concerned by personal health, dietary variety and price. Their global peers similarly focus on health, but then offer two very different reasons – carbon emissions and social and environmental concerns.
Meat preferences changing
Pork continues to dominate the Chinese demand, however its position is at risk due to Chinese consumers’ rising income levels and health concerns. Affluent consumers consider beef to be healthier than pork, with the former’s higher price seen as indicating quality.
Sixty percent of the meat consumed in China in 2021 was pork, the equivalent of 57 million tons. Most of the consumers surveyed reported buying pork during the previous month, much higher than their global peers. Demand for pork, however, will decline.
Poultry is perceived as healthier than pork and is the second most consumed meat – 25 million tons were eaten in 2021. Like their global peers, more than three-quarters of surveyed consumers reported purchasing poultry meat over the preceding month. Poultry meat consumption grew by 7% per annum 2017-2021 and is expected to increase by 1% per annum to 2026.
Beef is the third most consumed meat in China, with 9 million tons purchased in 2021. Approximately two-thirds of those surveyed reported buying beef over the previous month.
Beef is thought to show strong potential for growth. Twenty percent of survey respondents reported that they would spend more on beef, while 12% said that they would spend less. Over the period 2017-2021 demand grew by 4% each year and is expected to continue growing by 2% each year to 2026.
Meat purchase drivers
Chinese meat purchasing decisions are primarily motivated by health and product safety, then by quality and taste. The importance given by Chinese consumers to these qualities relates to growing health concerns, but it may also reflect a history of meat safety and quality issues, and questions about local standards.
While safety and taste may dominate buying choices in China, it is price that dominates in peer countries.
Convenience reshaping consumption
The desire for convenience is creating new meat consumption patterns in China, and survey respondents reported buying more prepared meat for home consumption. Like their global peers, the Chinese mainly buy uncooked meat for home consumption, but, as younger consumers gain more purchasing power, convenience is increasingly important.
China’s consumers also report spending more money in restaurants, in contrast to respondents in peer countries.
Eighty percent of purchases still happen offline, and traditional wet markets remain important; however, the situation is changing. Online purchasing is convenient, and Chinese consumers are extremely computer literate. Established smartphone ownership has led to a dynamic digital commerce marketplace, and many consumers report an intention to buy more meat online.
China is well-positioned to respond to growing demand for online meat sales, with the necessary infrastructure firmly established.
Sustainability still a minor concern
The promotion of sustainability benefits by meat producers and brands has made Chinese consumers aware of sustainability, and many pay attention to claims when buying meat. This is consistent with consumer awareness in the U.S. and U.K., but lags behind the market in Germany.
Across the markets surveyed, claims directly related to meat and personal health resonated most strongly. Claims related to animal welfare were of interest to fewer consumers, and those claims that related only indirectly to meat were of even less interest.