Sat, July 13

Unpacking the Controversy: The Rise and Critique of China’s Pre-Made Meal Industry

Even a two-yuan fried egg has to be pre-made. In 2023, making pre-made meals could possibly be more profitable than lending money. Recently, pre-made meals were thrust into the spotlight due to two news stories: one about a 6,000 yuan wedding banquet where 70% of the dishes were pre-made, and another about pre-made meals being introduced into schools. These stories drew significant criticism, making pre-made meals a target of public ire. Several catering businesses were questioned, such as a dumpling brand known for its freshly made dumplings, which was exposed during a live broadcast on major short video platforms where several women were vigorously making dumplings. The broadcaster emphasized that any unsold dumplings would be removed from sale after two hours, but it was quickly revealed that both the dumpling wrappers and the pork were frozen, with the wrappers having a shelf life of two months and the pork half a year. Selling frozen meat is not wrong, but promoting it as fresh and selling it at a high price is over the line. Despite the backlash, pre-made meals are selling even better than before. Recently, 21 listed companies in the pre-made meal industry released their third-quarter reports, with four companies reporting losses. The fastest-growing company’s performance increased by over 100%. The leading pre-made meal company, Wei Zhi Xiang, reported nearly 800 million yuan in revenue in 2022, with a net profit margin of 17.9%, making it more profitable than many financial lending companies. Market data shows that pre-made meals have quietly penetrated our daily diets, leading to the paradoxical situation where everyone criticizes pre-made meals, yet everyone eats them. Pre-made meals are indeed appealing, and you might have unknowingly consumed them too.

The popularity of pre-made meals began in the United States, was rejuvenated in Japan, and then spread to China. Speaking of American dining, one cannot ignore fast-food brands like KFC, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut, with their tens of thousands of chain stores. It’s impractical to expect fresh chicken and potato frying at their doorsteps every day. Hence, Americans invented the cold chain process, where chicken and potatoes are pre-processed and delivered from a central kitchen to various stores, allowing meals to be quickly prepared after customers order. This system easily won over many people’s stomachs. Compared to the US, Japan’s dietary habits are closer to China’s, but Japan’s food ingredient market is also very hot. After World War II, Japan’s economy rapidly recovered, reaching its peak in the 1970s. Corresponding to this was rapid urbanization, and figuring out how workers could eat quickly and conveniently became a top priority. Thus, pre-made meals emerged and became even more popular over time. They were cheap, filling, and hard not to love, especially as Japan’s “stay-at-home” culture thrived, further boosting the pre-made meal industry. Pre-made meals including fried rice, sushi, bento boxes, ramen, and even broth can be easily produced, with a penetration rate of over 60% in Japan and the US, compared to only 10-15% in China, all marketed on the premise of convenience and affordability.

The backlash against pre-made meals in China is largely due to the industry’s three main issues. First, pre-made meals are sold at the price of freshly made dishes without informing the consumer they are pre-made. Many might think of pre-made meals as the semi-finished chicken or fries found in McDonald’s or KFC, which at least are freshly cooked to some degree. However, the truly problematic pre-made meals involve simple steps: opening a package, placing it on a plate, heating it briefly, and then serving. Such meals are hard for consumers to distinguish from freshly made dishes, leading to situations where people order food online or dine out without realizing they’re consuming pre-made meals. For instance, a delivery order for braised pork rice that’s simply heated from a package, or a restaurant serving lamb spine that’s been pre-packaged and merely heated before serving. An investigation in Chengdu found that over 15 out of 20 restaurants surveyed used pre-made dishes like braised pork with preserved vegetables, significantly marking up the price for something that could be cheaply prepared at home.

The second major issue is the poor quality and taste of many pre-made meals. For example, the process of making pre-made fried eggs involves cracking eggs into molds, frying them on a conveyor belt, and then flash-freezing them at -40 degrees Celsius. This process creates ice crystals and microfractures in the egg, compromising its texture and resulting in a dry, chewy product upon reheating. Similarly, pre-made fried rice, sold for convenience, often ends up dry and tasteless compared to freshly made dishes. Heavy sauces and salt are frequently used in pre-made versions of dishes like sour fish, crawfish, and curry chicken to mask the lack of freshness and extend shelf life, which can lead to an increased preference for salty foods and potential health issues due to excessive sodium intake.

The third major issue with pre-made meals is the use of additives, which often comes up alongside discussions of pre-made meals. People are understandably cautious, as some pre-made meals boast improbably long shelf lives. Homemade dishes, even with refrigeration, might last a few days, but some pre-made meals have shelf lives of up to a year, such as a fish-flavored shredded pork with eggplant dish or a stir-fried pork with green peas dish, both with a 365-day shelf life. By comparison, the shelf life of a mixed pig feed is four months. While it’s believed that if a pre-made meal product is regular and has a shelf life of up to a year, it still falls within the standards for allowable additives. However, consumers have the right to choose not to eat these “zombie meals.” Unfortunately, many restaurants do not offer this choice. To make pre-made meals resemble fresh dishes more closely, some even use techniques like adding “wok aroma” or essence during the reheating process to give the pre-made meal a more authentic, homemade taste.

Currently, China’s pre-made meal industry primarily targets low-end restaurants, with individual consumers at this segment being relatively rare. The industry lacks uniform production standards concerning ingredients, food additives, processing techniques, and microbiological testing, resulting in a mixed quality of products where food safety can be a concern. Like any developing industry, the pre-made meal sector is evolving from disorder to order. Consumer purchasing habits are still in the phase of education and cultivation. The goal has never been to eliminate pre-made meals but to ensure transparency and choice. Given the penetration rates of pre-made meals in the United States and Japan, China’s pre-made meal market undoubtedly has significant room for growth. The market size is about 410 billion yuan, with an expected growth rate of 20% over the next three to five years, reaching over 1 trillion yuan by 2026. There’s a joke among netizens that in a few years, freshly cooked dishes might only be found at street stalls.

As the pre-made meal industry rapidly expands, it’s hoped that more consideration will be given to consumer welfare. For example, restaurants using pre-made meals should be required to indicate this on their menus, including details about preservatives, additives, and production dates, allowing consumers to make informed choices. In special public places like schools and on trains or planes, there should be options between pre-made and freshly cooked meals. While instant noodles are acceptable, the choice should be in the hands of consumers, not limited to only instant options while charging the price of gourmet handmade noodles.