You're standing at the butcher's counter in a supermarket in the not too distant future and you're faced with some new options.
- A survey of 480 US adults showed nearly two-thirds were willing to try lab-grown meat
- But this type of meat was seen as less appealing when it was framed as a high-tech product
- A lab-grown meat beef patty will likely to become mainstream within the next five to 10 years, an expert predicts
Do you select the meat product that is better for animals and the environment? The high-tech version made in a state-of-the-art laboratory? Or the product that tastes like conventional meat?
(Hint: they're all the same product.)
Lab-grown meat, cultured meat, cell-based meat, in-vitro meat and clean meat are some of the names given to meat produced directly from animal cells, rather than as part of a living animal.
While it's not yet being produced commercially, the promise of this product is that it could allow us to continue to eat the meat we enjoy while reducing some of the downsides of conventional meat production, like its carbon footprint and impact on animals.
But lab-grown meat is only going to become a supermarket staple if it's something enough of us want to buy, which is why researchers are looking at how best to market these products to us now.
In a new study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers surveyed 480 adults in the US on their attitudes towards lab-grown meats, and what effect presenting these products in different ways had on their attitudes towards them and willingness to eat them.
"We found that when cultured meat was framed as a cutting edge, high-tech product, this was less appealing to consumers than when it was framed as a solution to societal problems, or when it was framed as the same as conventional meat," said study lead author Christopher Bryant of the University of Bath.
Overall, nearly 65 per cent of the respondents were willing to give cultured meat a try. But the people to whom it was presented to as a high-tech product were less likely to consider it safe, healthy or good for environment. This meant they were 14 per cent less likely to be prepared to try it.
Mr Bryant said it was possible that consumers objected to the unfamiliarity of lab-grown meat, which is why linking the taste of this product to what they were already familiar with made it more appealing than focusing on how it was made.
Would you eat that?
The research confirmed earlier findings about people's attitudes towards lab-grown meat, said Clive Phillips, a University of Queensland animal welfare and ethics expert who was not involved in this study.
"The US study showed that the respondents were quite willing to try in-vitro meat but they were most concerned about its unnaturalness, and I think we would see that here in Australia as well," Professor Phillips said.
Professor Phillips' most recent work in this area, again looking at a US population, found people's fear of consuming new food types and their political affiliation were most likely to underpin their attitudes towards lab-grown meat.
"People who are particularly conservative were most distrustful of the cultured meat," he said.
Part of the problem we have with lab-grown meat is that it challenges our definitions of what meat is, said anthropologist Simone Dennis of the Australian National University.
"If in-vitro meat is a laboratory-grown product and is the product of technology and it's described as meat, was it ever alive and can it be killed?" Professor Dennis said.
Professor Phillips said the study really confirmed the way cultured meat was presented had an impact on our attitudes towards it.
But they both predicted that lab-grown meat would ultimately break through.
"My prediction would be that we will adopt cultured meat, and that we will very likely see this as a product that becomes familiar to us," Professor Dennis said.
The other main barrier to this type of meat being adopted more widely is that it's still relatively expensive to produce, Professor Phillips said.
But with people keen to use the technology to avoid large-scale intensive animal farming, there were large amounts of money going into the research, including from some beef-producing companies, he said.
"I think we could expect that at least the beef patty would be likely to be replaced within the next five to 10 years on a fairly large scale," Professor Phillips said, but it's going to take a while longer for cultured meat to be able to replicate a more texturally complex steak.
How green is lab-grown meat anyway?
While part of the appeal of lab-grown meat is that it will be better for the environment and public health, food and meat scientist Robyn Warner of the University of Melbourne said we won't know that for sure until the product is closer to commercial reality.
Professor Warner is in the process of publishing a review of lab-grown meat production. Her preliminary analysis suggested the benefits of cultured meat were not clear cut.
It's very likely cell-based meat production will involve less greenhouse gas emissions than beef cattle production, Professor Warner said, but she didn't think it would be lower than pork or chicken production.
She also pointed out the commercial production of lab-grown meat was likely to require the use of antimicrobials in the production process.
"Which is not a problem because there'll be procedures set up to make sure it's very safe for humans, but I think the concept of it being 'clean' might be a mislabelling," Professor Warner said.
"I actually think we need both cell-based meat production and traditional meat production in the future."