What’s in a name? Research looks at the best ways to describe lab-grown meat

What's in a name? Research looks at the best ways to describe lab-grown meat
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Credit: Hampton Creek

Dive Brief:

  • Research unveiled at the recent Good Food Conference suggested the term "cultivated meat" might be the best way to describe products made in a lab from animal cells, Food Navigator reported. Looking at the method in which the meat is grown, calling the vessel a "cultivator" — which conjures the cultivation of plants — is more appealing to consumers than "bioreactor," Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer at Mattson, told the publication.
  • Several terms tested during the terminology project done by The Good Food Institute and Mattson — including "clean meat," "cell-based meat" and "lab-grown" — faced problems with consumers. Researchers found "clean meat" confuses consumers and seems to claim conventional meat is dirty. "Cell-based" doesn't poll well with shoppers. "Lab-grown" comes with marketing challenges.
  • Not all manufacturers in this space are behind the term "cultivated meat." Eric Schulze, Memphis Meats' vice president of product and regulation, told Food Navigator the company would continue using the term "cell-based meat" because it is "factual, inclusive and neutral."

When it comes to food products, names are critical and can quickly connote positive or negative associations for consumers. As plant-based and cell-based foods become more popular, finding the right terminology has been a hard task. For example, the term "vegan" equates to "not tasty" for a lot of people, and the term "plant-based" tends to remind many of "vegan."

But settling on an acceptable term to describe meat created in a lab has proven especially difficult. While "lab-grown" was considered a serious marketing challenge in this recent research project, another recent online survey commissioned by Ingredient Communications found it resonated enough with 40% of U.S. consumers that they would be willing to buy something with that label from a restaurant or retailer.

"Clean meat" has been a popular term so far for the niche segment and was originally used by the Good Food Institute as a better option than "cultured meat." According to a 2016 post from the Good Food Institute Co-Founder and Executive Director Bruce Friedrich, "cultured" tends to bring up the image of meat produced in a petri dish.

"Although the process involves petri dishes and laboratories at the earliest stages, clean meat production will happen in the equivalent of giant meat fermenters once it’s at production scale. Growing meat at scale will look like a beer brewery or a greenhouse, not like a laboratory," he wrote.

Friedrich may have been on to something. A Kadence International study conducted last year found just 27% of 2,000 adult consumers would buy "clean meat." Yet 66% of them would try "lab-grown protein," which is a rare vote of confidence for that particular term.

A larger problem for the industry may be the fact that the Kadence study also found just 17% of U.S. consumers were familiar with the concept of "clean meat." The term may need to be phased out along with some of the others. More studies and focus groups may be needed for companies to discover what terms click best with consumers, in both understanding how the products were made and making them appealing to shoppers.

A more appropriate term for these products might be "sustainable meat," although that could raise more questions than it answers. It could also raise the hackles of the conventional meat industry, which is touting its own sustainability credentials and vehemently opposes using any meat-related terms on lab-produced products.

Regardless of this terminology dispute in the industry, the final decisions about labeling terms for meat and poultry products made in a lab from animal cells will be up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will handle the seafood side. While discussions have started, little progress has been made on guidelines for manufacturers to follow. Time will tell how the market reacts once those terms are standardized.

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