HK's Omnipork takes aim at Asia plant-based meat market

October 21, 2019 16:58
David Yeung, co-founder of social venture Green Monday, is behind the plant-based meat substitute Omnipork launched last year in Hong Kong. Photo: Green Monday

"A few years ago, we launched Green Common (the plant-based grocery shop and cafe), and introduced Beyond Meat products into Hong Kong. Everybody was thinking like, ‘What are you doing?’, 'Where do we have a market for plant-based meat?'," recalls Hong Kong entrepreneur David Yeung, co-founder of social venture Green Monday, which is behind the plant-based meat substitute Omnipork.

“I also suggested to others to invest in Beyond Meat at that time, but they ignored that," Yeung said in an interview with EJ Insight, referring to the hugely successful US-based vegan burger startup whose stock has nearly quadrupled since it listed on the Nasdaq in May this year. 

Years before the meatless meat revolution became a buzzword, Hong Kong-based startup Green Monday was founded in 2012, aiming to promote a vegetarian culture and sustainable living. The social venture later expanded into other business fields including retail and catering services.

After two years of development by its Canada-based tech team, the company tapped into the potentially large market in Asia for plant-based meat substitute, via its food-tech arm Right Treat, with the official launch of its product Omnipork last year, the first plant-based “pork” in Asia that bleeds and tastes like ground pork.

Having been an early investor in Beyond Meat and its distribution and retailing partner in Asia, Yeung said the experience working with Beyond Meat in some way reinforced his ambition to create a plant-based meat product for the Asia market.

“We believe that if there is a huge market for plant-based meat worldwide, that market needs a brand involved in plant-based products catering to oriental food. For Asians, they can't eat burgers every day, but they can eat dumplings every day; it's about culture.”

While the meat consumed in the West is mainly beef, in Asia, pork is a crucial part of the diet, in particular for the Chinese, Yeung points out, which explains why the company developed Omnipork, a plant-based protein that looks and tastes like ground pork.

Plant-based meat substitutes are rising and shaking up the markets around the world. For now, they can be divided into plant-based and cell-based. Entities engaged in plant-based meats include established brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.

“Each brand has its own ‘secret recipe’ for its product,” said Yeung. “For OmniPork products, they are not finished products, like bacon, they are in fact ingredients for the dishes, for example, you can use OmniPork to make dumplings."

"While other foreign plant-based products are relatively dry in texture, OmniPork has a much higher viscosity required for various applications such as firing, boiling, adding it into soup and congee.”

Plant-based meat products are generally based around a source of plant protein such as soy, wheat or legumes, which are then combined with a range of fats, colors, and flavorings. As to Omnipork, it is made from plant proteins that come from peas, non-GMO soy, shiitake mushroom, and rice, according to Yeung.

OmniPork's production line is now in Thailand, and Yeung says the company will invest in mainland China in the future to produce products for that market. By the end of this year, OmniPork will be available in retail chains and restaurants in China and Singapore, among other markets beyond Hong Kong.

Selling at HK$43 (US$5.4) for a 230 gram bag in Hong Kong, Omnipork is now available on Tmall Global, Alibaba’s cross-border e-commerce platform, according to Yeung. It is entering a huge market at a time when pork prices in China jumped 69 percent in September from a year ago, as the country continues to battle a pork shortage crisis following an outbreak of African swine fever.

The meatless meat market in mainland China has been significantly boosted by Beyond Meat’s incredible run this year, with multiple domestic food producers now bringing out their own new plant-based meat products to the market. But Yeung is not deterred by the intensifying competition from Chinese peers.

“Consumers in mainland China have doubts about domestic food safety as there are too many food scandals,” he said. “For food, trust is the most important thing, and that cannot simply be built by marketing. The brand image of OmniPork and Green Monday has been built because we have been doing it seven and a half years ago, when there was not any business opportunity but still we were willing to do it out of our beliefs.”

“As for OmniPork, we are a Hong Kong brand, the products are produced in Thailand, and developed by a team based in Canada, OmniPork is equivalent to an international brand, and the confidence on our brand will be different from that of other mainland peers,” he added.

Soybeans and peas, the main source of protein used in plant-based meats like Omnipork, are in plentiful supply worldwide. However, they, among other farm products, have been on the bargaining table amidst the escalating tensions between the United States and China.

Chinese importers have been recently purchasing soybeans from Brazil, the nation’s largest soybean supplier, despite the White House announcement that China had agreed to buy up to US$50 billion of US farm products annually during trade talks this month.

Yeung told EJ Insight that the Sino-US trade war has an impact on his business. “We are importing the Beyond Meat products, made in the United States, into the mainland China market, and that incurs tariff.”

However, OmniPork imports into China do not incur tariffs because they are produced in Thailand.

OmniPork's raw materials, including peas and soybeans, are from North America, according to Yeung.

“Earlier, China imposed tariffs on the US soybean imports, which resulted in a large oversupply of soybeans in the US. That may benefit us as prices of our raw materials could fall,” he said.

That said, Yueng admitted that given the nature of the trade war, with its quick-changing dynamics, there is no telling how long his firm will see the added benefits. 

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OmniPork, made by proteins coming from shiitake mushroom, peas, non-GMO soy, and rice, is designed to be an all-purpose plant-based pork analogue. Photo: Green Monday

EJ Insight writer