Traditional food manufacturers tap growing appetite for plant-based products
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: Traditional food manufacturers tap growing appetite for plant-based products

Ha Li Fa’s assistant marketing manager Royston Khor, deputy managing director Randall Ang and business development manager Welson Woon. PHOTO: BT FILE

WITH the global plant-based movement on the rise, more traditional food manufacturers in Singapore are developing plant-based product lines to tap new revenue streams and enter overseas markets.

"This is in line with consumers becoming more conscious of nutrition and health, as well as more seeing plant-based diets as sustainable and less damaging to the environment," said Sharon Tay, director of food manufacturing and agritech at Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), in an interview with The Business Times (BT).

She cited a study by sustainability platform Abillion, which saw the average number of vegan dishes per restaurant in Singapore rise to 4.3 in the second quarter of 2020, up from 2.3 a year ago.

Alongside this growing interest, EnterpriseSG has seen more companies tapping shared facilities and services in Singapore for research and development (R&D).

This includes the Food Innovation and Resource Centre (FIRC) at Singapore Polytechnic, as well as FoodPlant and Monde Nissin's Green Protein Hub, both of which provide infrastructure to help food manufacturers enter the alternative protein space.

Yet, while the plant-based market holds "strong potential", Tay said, it is also becoming increasingly saturated – which means that companies must differentiate their products "through unique offerings or strong brand positioning".

"For example, if their target is the Asian market, they must understand the local Asian palate and consider pushing products such as dumplings, satays and baos, which tend to be more popular."

Manufacturers also need to be strategic about the pricing of their plant-based products and ensure they are comparable to their traditional meat offerings, she added.

Exports will be a key strategy for food manufacturers to scale. This is because plant-based products could serve as an alternative to the firm's meat-based offerings "which could be a challenge for exports due to in-market regulations and customs requirements", said Tay.

BT spoke to three home-grown traditional manufacturers that have recently hopped onboard the plant-based bandwagon:

Lim Kee Food Manufacturing: Plant-based meat baos

Stringent international meat import regulations have made it difficult for Lim Kee Food Manufacturing to export its Chinese steamed buns (bao) with meat filling.

This prompted the more than 30-year-old bao manufacturer to come up with plant-based meat baos, in order to expand its product portfolio and grow overseas sales.

At the moment, Lim Kee's original meat baos are only exported to Hong Kong.

The firm exports its sweet baos with paste filling, such as red bean and yam, to Vietnam, Cambodia, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Canada – but volumes are not "sufficiently big", said Ang Khim Wee, its head of business development.

"When people eat dim sum, baos or convenience meals, generally they prefer to eat something more savoury or meat-related. We cannot rely on just our dessert baos to push for export sales."

Lim Kee's first plant-based shipments went out to Vietnam, Cambodia, and the United Kingdom in May 2022, followed by France, Australia and Canada. They are sold in Asian supermarkets under a mix of white labels and its own brand as well as in Chinese restaurants.

Its plant-based meat baos are next set for Japan, with the firm having recently appointed its distributor partner in March 2023.

Lim Kee's biggest challenge, however, was coming up with a product formulation that would comply with import regulations for plant-based products across international markets, said Ang.

"With a plant-based char siew bao, you need 15 different ingredients to replace pork and sauces. Not all of these ingredients may be approved by the UK, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, and so on."

The firm spent three to four years carrying out R&D to develop a "baseline formulation" that would fulfil regulatory requirements across its export countries, said Ang. This would prevent the possibility of any product recalls.

Besides baos, Lim Kee has also developed plant-based Singapore cuisine meals – such as lor mai kai (glutinous rice with chicken), char siew rice and curry rice – which it hopes to export by end-2023.

Sales of its plant-based meat baos currently make up less than 5 per cent of Lim Kee's overall sales. The company has no plans to launch them in Singapore for the time being.

But Ang is optimistic that plant-based eating will become more mainstream down the road: "This is a long-haul game for us. Just look at Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – they took many years to get to where they are."

Eat Plant Love by Ha Li Fa: Plant-based fishballs, ngoh hiang and you tiao

Enter the world's first "meatless meat" satay, created by 29-year-old home-grown satay manufacturer Jumain Sataysfaction.

Move over, plant-based burger patties. Fishball manufacturer Ha Li Fa is hoping to break new ground with something more relatable to the average Singaporean: plant-based fishballs, vegetable rolls (ngoh hiang) and dough fritters (you tiao).

Founded in 1987, Ha Li Fa is known for its BoBo brand of fishballs and fishcakes.

"We noticed that plant-based food manufacturers were mostly from Western countries, producing staples such as sausages, nuggets and burger patties," said Randall Ang, deputy managing director of Ha Li Fa.

"But there was no counterpart making plant-based fishballs or wontons."

With that, Ang set out to fill a gap in the market. He launched Eat Plant Love (EPL) – the first plant-based brand under Ha Li Fa – in October 2022.

EPL has since rolled out seven plant-based seafood and meat frozen items, which include plant-based fishballs, mushroom balls and calamari.

The biggest challenge was recreating the "unique" texture of its original BoBo fishballs for EPL, said Ang. "Fishballs need to be chewy but also crunchy at the same time. When you bite into them, they are supposed to break open and retain a certain level of firmness."

His team spent between S$500,000 and S$1 million on R&D for EPL over two years.

It was also difficult finding suppliers of raw materials, Ang noted, as EPL's plant-based items are made with plant-based fibre compound cellulose, konjac and pea protein. The brand imports its ingredients from overseas suppliers in Thailand, the United States and Europe.

Working with food and beverage outlets is part of EPL's strategy to make plant-based food accessible to the masses and obtain swift consumer feedback, said Ang. This helps it to test out its products in the market, before producing them on a larger scale.

In December 2022, the brand tied up with Michelin Bib Gourmand eatery Lixin Teochew Fishball Noodles to create Singapore's first plant-based mee pok, with exclusive plant-based ngoh hiang balls.

Last month, it collaborated with home-grown you tiao maker Xi De Li to launch two you tiaos stuffed with plant-based fish paste.

EPL's products can also be found at smaller vegetarian restaurants and at NTUC FairPrice supermarkets. They will be sold at Giant Singapore and seafood speciality store The Seafood Market Place from July.

The brand also exports its products to Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Cambodia, and has its eye on Australia as its next target.

Though EPL contributes less than 5 per cent of Ha Li Fa's overall monthly sales, Ang sees growth in the long term.

"The concept of plant-based hawker food is still new, so it will take some time for traction to build," he said. "We don't think it's a fad. The movement is here to stay... the impact on our environment is real."

Jumain Sataysfaction: Plant-based meat satay

Enter the world's first "meatless meat" satay, created by 29-year-old home-grown satay manufacturer Jumain Sataysfaction.

In 2022, the company participated in the Meatless Meat Challenge, an initiative organised by EnterpriseSG, the Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association and Singapore Polytechnic's FIRC.

The challenge, which took place across six months, aimed to help local food enterprises develop alternative meat products. Jumain worked with a team of students from Singapore Polytechnic to conceptualise and commercialise a plant-based meat satay, dubbed Soveg.

The impetus to create Soveg was to meet growing demand for meatless products from vegans and vegetarians, said Samsiah Suliman, chief executive officer of Jumain.

The firm previously had one product in this range: mushroom satay, which was launched in 2010 and is popular with consumers.

But Jumain has struggled to meet this demand in the last few years, due to challenges in production and in obtaining raw materials, she said.

"The steps to process the mushroom are tedious. We also only use a particular mushroom imported from overseas and prices fluctuate due to cultivation issues."

This spurred the company to expand its range of satay and make its foray into the plant-based segment.

Suliman wants to assure consumers that no preservatives or flavour enhancers are used in the production of her plant-based meat satay, which is made with pea protein.

"People are getting more concerned about what really goes into a meatless product. This gives rise to questions on whether any chemicals are added just to mimic the taste, look and texture of real meat.

"We told the Singapore Polytechnic students that it's alright for the product to not look exactly like meat, as long as chemicals or unhealthy ingredients are not added to the product."

Soveg is currently distributed to a few restaurants and caterers in Singapore. Its sales make up less than 3 per cent of Jumain's monthly satay sales.

As local demand for Jumain's plant-based meat satay remains low, Suliman is banking on exports to push up numbers.

She said the firm had received many enquiries for Soveg at the recent Gulfood trade show in Dubai in February, from markets such as the Middle East and India.

"Hopefully, this will serve as the trigger point for us to achieve economies of scale," she said.

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.