For love of meat: Five trends in China that meat executives must grasp

China is the world’s largest consumer meat market. Meat consumption in China has increased steadily since the early 1990s. In 2021, the Chinese consumed almost 100 million tons of meat—27 percent of the world’s total1 and twice the total consumption in the United States.

But per capita meat consumption in China lags that of western countries. In 2021, per capita consumption was just half that of the United States. This picture is likely to change as increasing urbanization and rising income levels make meat more available and more affordable for Chinese consumers. As more people buy more meat, the patterns of meat consumption will undoubtedly change.

To understand the meat purchasing and eating habits of Chinese consumers, we surveyed about one thousand of them and compared their survey results with the habits of four thousand consumers surveyed in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The survey found a distinct and shifting profile of meat consumption in China, reflected in five trends that executives of meat companies looking to enter this market need to understand.

1. The Chinese meat market is bifurcating

More than half of Chinese consumers eat meat regularly. This is consistent with US and UK meat consumption (Exhibit 1). For these consumers, meat remains central to their diet despite an overall consumer trend of spending more conservatively, according to our 2023 McKinsey China consumer report: A time of resilience.

Fifty-seven percent of Chinese consumers eat meat regularly, higher than the rates in most Western peer markets.

Slightly less than half of Chinese consumers fit the survey’s category of “conscious consumers,” that is, people committed to eating little or no meat. This result is similar to that of peer survey countries, where 40 to 60 percent of consumers are classified as conscious consumers. Many conscious consumers in China intend to reduce their meat consumption further, though not on the scale of European consumers. Few traditional meat eaters in China share that intention.

Conscious consumers in China are predominantly female and members of the baby boomer generation. Conscious consumers in the peer countries also are predominantly female, but they are younger and more affluent. The fact that China’s baby boomers have embraced conscious consumption comes as no surprise. They grew up eating a traditional Chinese cuisine rich in plant-based protein, especially tofu.

Asked why they limit meat consumption, Chinese conscious consumers cite personal health, diet variety, and price—factors related directly to meat products and consumer expectations of those products. Their global peers likewise focus on personal health but then offer two very different reasons: animal welfare and carbon emissions, factors related less directly to meat and more directly to social and environmental concerns (Exhibit 2).

Health concerns dominate the decision of Chinese conscious consumers to limit meat consumption.

2. Consumer meat preferences are poised for change

Pork dominates the meat menu in China. The 57 million tons of pork consumed in China in 2021 accounted for 60 percent of total meat consumption. Most of the Chinese consumers surveyed report purchasing pork in the past month—a much higher rate than for their global peers (Exhibit 3). Many Chinese consumers eat pork in three to five meals a week or even daily. Note that Chinese cuisine includes myriad ways of cooking pork and features pork in side dishes and dim sum, as well as entrées.

Pork dominates meat consumption in China, unlike in peer countries.

Poultry, which is perceived as a healthier option, ranks number two on China’s meat menu, with 25 million tons consumed in 2021. Like their global peers, more than three-quarters of the Chinese consumers surveyed report purchasing poultry in the past month. Poultry consumption grew 7 percent a year in the period from 2017 to 2021, and annual growth of 1 percent is expected to continue until 2026.

Beef ranks number three on China’s meat menu, with nine million tons consumed in 2021. About two-thirds of the Chinese consumers surveyed report purchasing beef in the past month, but their purchases but do not begin to match US levels. However, beef shows strong growth potential: following annual growth of 4 percent in 2017–21, growth is expected to continue at 2 percent until 2026.

Despite its current dominance of the meat market in China, the health concerns mentioned by conscious consumers, combined with rising income levels, threaten pork’s market share. Chinese consumers, especially those affluent enough to pay more for meat, consider beef healthier than pork. They see the higher price of beef as a sign of a premium product’s higher quality, and they remember the safety issues that have historically been associated with pork. Twenty-eight percent of the Chinese consumers surveyed say they plan to reduce their pork consumption (see sidebar, “Highlights of meat choices by type”).

Twenty-eight percent of the Chinese consumers surveyed say they plan to reduce their pork consumption.

Our 2023 McKinsey China consumer report finds the number of top-earning households increasing rapidly. Today, they account for 39 percent of urban households and 55 percent of urban household consumption (Exhibit 4). By 2025, they will account for more than half of China’s urban households. These consumers stand to have significant influence on meat consumption patterns.

The number of high- and upper-middle-income households in China is growing and will surpass 50 percent of households by 2025.

3. Product safety and taste govern meat-purchasing decisions

When buying meat, Chinese consumers look, first and foremost, for healthiness and product safety and for quality and taste. While the emphasis on these buying factors is undoubtedly related to consumers’ growing health concerns, it may also reflect a history of incidents involving meat safety and quality, along with questions about the adequacy of standards in the Chinese meat industry. In addition, the diversity of regional cuisines and cooking methods across China keeps taste top of mind (Exhibit 5).

Product safety and taste govern buying choices in China, while price dominates decisions in peer countries.

Affordability ranks a distant third. This is a far cry from the overwhelming attention paid to price in the peer countries studied. In these other countries, price increases and inflation are running rampant, with inflation at four times the rate in China.2

4. Demand for convenience is reshaping meat consumption patterns

Growing demand for convenience is shaping new patterns of meat consumption in China.

The Chinese consumers surveyed report purchasing more prepared meat to eat at home. Like their global peers, Chinese consumers mostly buy uncooked meat for at-home consumption. But as younger consumers exert more purchasing power, convenience looms larger as a key buying factor. These consumers typically feel great work pressure and have little time to cook, so they express interest in prepared meat (precooked or fried) and ready-to-eat meals delivered to their homes.

Chinese consumers also report spending more money to eat meat in restaurants, in contrast to consumers in the peer survey countries, who spend more on meat to eat at home. Chinese restaurants typically use frozen meat, so the growth of the restaurant and catering market (8 percent year over year in 2018–23) promises to increase consumption of frozen meat.

According to our survey, 80 percent of meat purchases happen offline, with half of those purchases made in the traditional wet market. But market trends hint at growth to come.

Online purchasing appeals to consumers demanding convenience. Chinese consumers are extremely tech-savvy. Long-standing smartphone ownership has fostered a dynamic digital-commerce marketplace. Consumers already show considerable willingness to buy meat online, and many intend to increase their online purchasing.

Why? The top reasons consumers give to explain their use of online channels include time savings, direct delivery, pandemic-induced desire to avoid human contact, and greater product selection. The pandemic saw online sales of fresh food more than double, from 15 percent to 33 percent, and that shift looks likely to stick postpandemic.

China is well positioned to handle the growth of online meat sales. The necessary infrastructure, including logistics networks and cold chain technology, is firmly established. The number of online fresh-grocery players is increasing. And lower-income consumers are embracing the concept.

5. Sustainability is gaining awareness but little influence

Consumer awareness of sustainability is increasing in China but does not translate into enthusiasm for alternative meat. Promotion of sustainability benefits by meat producers and brands has made Chinese consumers aware of sustainability; many pay attention to sustainability claims when buying meat. This is consistent with consumer awareness in the United Kingdom and the United States but lags behind awareness in Germany. Increasing wealth and sophistication in China also encourage openness to new food concepts.

Across the markets surveyed, the sustainability claims that resonate most strongly with consumers relate directly to meat and personal health: pasture raised or free range and antibiotic free. Claims related to animal welfare (grass fed) weigh heavily with fewer consumers. Even fewer pay much attention to claims related only indirectly to meat (Exhibit 6).

Antibiotic-free and pasture-raised claims have the greatest impact on consumers across the countries surveyed.

Despite growing awareness of sustainability and the emerging desire to reduce meat consumption, alternative meat has gained little traction in China. Only 6 percent of the consumers surveyed report purchasing alternative meat in the past month, versus 30 to 40 percent of their global peers. More than 70 percent of Chinese consumers report rarely or never consuming alternative meat, versus 40 percent of their global peers.

More than 70 percent of Chinese consumers report rarely or never consuming alternative meat, versus 40 percent of their global peers.

One factor in this limited uptake may be that Chinese consumers lack awareness of the impact of meat consumption on climate change—a hot topic in Western countries. But Chinese consumers also express strong reservations about alternative meat products. Almost 80 percent dislike the taste of these products, and about 20 percent object to their price. Almost half report having little knowledge of the products’ nutritional value and considerable concern about additives. All these factors contribute to forecasts of limited demand for alternative meat in China.

Strategic implications for global meat players

China’s huge population and growing middle class suggest significant market demand for real meat over the next decade. The market is expected to grow 1 percent year over year between 2022 and 2026. To capture a meaningful share of this market, global meat players should set entry strategies that reflect insights into Chinese meat consumption.

Companies can explore potential white spaces for establishing competitive advantage. As Chinese consumers shift meat consumption from pork to protein sources considered to be of higher quality, global players have an opportunity to introduce more premium offerings, especially beef, to the market. Likewise, as convenience-obsessed consumers eat more meals in restaurants, global players have an opportunity to meet the growing demand for frozen meat.

Global players typically have more advanced farming capabilities and operational excellence than local players and may be able to leverage cost efficiency as a competitive advantage. At the same time, global players should carefully consider whether to partner with local players, who would be the best partners, and how a partnership would fit into the broader China operating model. Typically, partnering with midsize local players can help global players enter the market with a relatively limited investment.

Companies can consider how they might shape the go-to-market strategy and product portfolio to meet consumers’ demand for convenience. While local producers are likely to continue providing the lion’s share of uncooked meat to consumers, global players might focus on the emerging market for prepared meat products. Success would require targeting and marketing to younger consumers, especially those who are more affluent.

Global players should embrace the online sales channel. This channel, which already accounts for 5 to 10 percent of meat sales, is relatively advanced in China. The offline channel is fragmented and requires local resources, but the online channel is open for global business and is better suited to the branded, premium products that global players would bring.

Finally, companies may find attractive opportunities in tailoring value propositions to consumer concerns about health and sustainability. Beyond communicating the health and sustainability benefits of products, global players should ensure that their products deliver on those promises—for example, by improving product safety.

Global players looking to anchor their strategy in concepts new to Chinese consumers, such as the health benefits of alternative meat or the role of animal welfare in sustainability, will have to recognize the limited awareness and understanding of these concepts among consumers, especially those living outside of major cities. Success would require investing significant time and resources to educate targeted consumers and build the market for relevant products. Making these efforts context specific—for example, linking new plant-based protein products to China’s long history of eating tofu—might greatly enhance the odds of success.

Protein will not disappear from consumers’ diets. The question is, how will they consume it, and how will they make that decision? Accurate answers to this question can give global players an advantage in serving China’s consumers.

Explore a career with us