Beyond Meat burger patties hit shelves at Alibaba’s Hema supermarket chain in Shanghai on Saturday, marking the first time a plant-based meat is being sold in a grocery store in China, and coming at a time of lingering worries about traditional meat. It’s a big coup for Beyond Meat because none of its meatless rivals battling for Chinese stomachs has broken into grocery chains yet. It gives Beyond Meat an edge – at least for now – in the fierce meatless battle under way in China but that has so far been limited to a few fast-food restaurants and e-commerce sites. The Nasdaq-listed food giant’s meat patties, which can be grilled to make burgers or, in a more traditional Chinese way, be rolled to make dumpling stuffing, debuted in all 50 Hema stores – known as Fresh Hippo stores – in Shanghai. It can also be order on Hema’s App. “We know that retail will be a critical part of our success in China, and we're pleased to mark this early milestone within a few months of our market entry,” Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of Beyond Meat, said in a statement. “Expanding into retail is the natural next step in building our market presence.” It plans to roll out its plant-based meat products in stores in Beijing and Hangzhou in August. In one signal of increasing interest in the traditional meat alternatives, search inquires for “plant-meat” on Alibaba’s online platform TMall surged 40 per cent through the year ending May, according to a report by CBNData and TMall. The race in China to dominate the meat-alternatives market is relative new in China. But players see great potential in the world’s largest consumer of meat. Chinese people eat more than a quarter of all animal meat. The timing for Beyond Meat could not be better. Chinese consumers appear open to at least try vegetarian alternatives, partly because of ongoing concern about virus outbreaks in humans and animals. The discovery of traces of Covid-19 on a chopping board for imported salmon last month in a Beijing market spark concerns that the frightening illness might be able to jump from animals to humans. Health authorities say that is extremely unlikely. But the buzz refocused consumers’ attention on the safety of the food they eat. Meanwhile, researchers in China have discovered a new type of swine flu , named G4, in pigs that has already passed from animals to humans. The big worry is that it would be passed from humans to humans – which has not happened as of now. This latest alarming health concern also has triggered concern among Chinese consumers. But Chinese consumers love meat, and it is not clear whether alternatives will catch on. Vince Lu Zhongming, founder of the first home-grown plant-based meat start-up Zhenmeat , thinks heightened food concerns will benefits products like his. “We will focus on the collaboration Chinese hotpot restaurants,” said Lu, whose company launched two plant-based products, “pork tenderloin” and “crayfish”, on June 18. The company is also studying way to use 3-D printers to produce protein alternatives that contain bones and other structural elements for Chinese consumers, who love to eat meat off the bone. “Our competitiveness is to produce products to meet local taste. We have spent a lot of time studying the texture and taste,” said Lu. Lu said he welcomes international players to enter the plant-based market as they can help change consumers’ perception on plant-based food. The millennial entrepreneur creating China’s answer to Beyond Meat Meanwhile, meanwhile vegan food producer Starfield, based in Shenzhen, partnered with Beijing Technology and Business University last year to make and sell 3,000 boxes of a bean protein-based filling for moon cakes. Beyond Meat debuted in China in April through a partnership with the Starbucks coffee chain, which created three dishes made with Beyond’s beef alternative. Later, it became available in meatless pastas, lasagnes and wraps at some of the country's most popular fast food chains, including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Beyond Meat’s major rival, Impossible Foods , announced plans last year to set up a factory in China. “It is an absolutely essential and extremely important market for us,” Pat Brown, the chief executive of Impossible Foods, said in an interview with The New York Times last year. Hong Kong is also getting into the meatless business. Hong Kong-based Green Common’s Omnipork , a plant-based protein that looks and tastes like ground pork, made its first foray into China last year through Tmall.