New research offers a warning to companies looking to sell cultured meat. This new type of protein — meat engineered from cell tissue in a lab rather than using traditional animal agriculture — could end up suffering the same fate as GMOs if producers and proponents aren’t able to shift the public narrative.
In a study published July 3 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers found that consumers presented with images of cultured meat framed as high tech innovation felt more negatively about it than consumers who were presented with images and text highlighting the meat’s societal benefits or its equivalent taste and nutrition.
Researchers separated the 480 consumers surveyed into three groups, presenting cultured meat to each group through a slightly different lens. The three different frames were “high-tech,” which showed the meat in a lab spilling out of a petri dish, “societal benefits,” which showed cows in a field with a sentence about helping animals and reducing environmental harms, and “same meat,” which showed a meatball sizzling in a pan with text highlighting equivalent taste and nutrition.
The researchers observed that the group of consumers who experienced the high-tech frame were significantly less likely to want to try cultured meat as compared to the two other groups. That’s a problem for cultured meat producers and proponents, the study’s authors say, because media coverage of cultured meat tends to place most of its attention on the technological glory of growing a sirloin steak in a petri dish.
It’s not so surprising that the media would want to focus on the technological aspect of cultured meat, acknowledges lead author Chris Bryant, a University of Bath researcher who is also the Director of Social Science at the Cellular Agriculture Society, an organization that aims to promote cultured meat acceptance.
The idea of growing meat in a petri dish is still something of an engineering marvel, and that’s what makes it newsworthy. But that doesn’t change the fact that this coverage could hinder public acceptance, which is why Bryant hopes the research will persuade “advocates and producers to think about how they speak.”
The first cultured beef burger was served to the public in 2013. It took three years to grow and cost $325,000 to produce. Just two years later, the cost was down to a little over $11. But, just as with most innovation, cultured meat didn’t happen overnight.
According to New Harvest, an organization that funds research on cellular agriculture and its products like cultured meat, precursors to cellular agriculture include engineered insulin, which was created by inserting the gene for human insulin into bacteria, and engineered rennet, which eliminated the need for using cow stomachs to make cheese.
The scientists working on cultured meat are essentially cell tissue engineers, according to New Harvest. That’s because they not only grow the cells but also build the scaffolding to hold those cells in place, so that they can eventually grow into something that looks like a steak or a piece of chicken, for example.
Those nitty-gritty engineering details might fascinate someone like Bryant, a self-proclaimed “technophile,” but, for other consumers, it seems to be a turn-off. Calling it “lab meat” or highlighting the technological aspects of cultured meat over, say, benefits to animals, has been the “default in press coverage and…in popular discussion,” Bryant says, and that could have a negative impact on public perception. He and his co-author point to the vast body of research on media coverage and public perception of genetically modified foods, a story which could serve as a cautionary tale for cultured meat advocates.
According to the research, news outlets covering GM foods tended to highlight the scientific or economic aspects over other features like yield benefits to farmers or reduced applications of pesticides. Several commentators even noticed the same outlets would cover genetic engineering positively in the context of medicine but more negatively when it came to food. Thee name matters too—“GMO” can sound more ominous and confusing than “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered” or the new USDA-approved “bioengineered”—and that’s yet another parallel between the story of GM foods and the still fairly new story of cultured meat.
Just what should people call it anyway? The framing of cultured meat as “lab meat” makes it sound high-tech, unfamiliar and unnatural, all rather thorny concepts in the science of public perception. “People assume that natural equals good and unnatural equals bad,” argues Bryant, but “like many of our intuitions, [it] really is quite baseless.”
When people say unnatural, what they might actually mean is unfamiliar, suggests Bryant, hopefully, pointing to data that shows familiarity is a big predictor for cultured meat acceptance. “We think that, based on familiarity data…over time people [can] become more accepting.” But, of course, that all depends on the way that people come to talk about and feel towards cultured meat.
The debate about naturalness in new meat alternatives like plant-based or cultured meat burgers has caused a realignment in the food wars. Farmers who once rejected claims of unnaturalness when applied to GM foods, for example, are now lobbing those same arguments against cultured meat and other meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger. Some of the food advocates who routinely urge the public to “eat more plants” would also prefer to avoid plant-based meat alternatives because they’re just too unnatural.
Just like with genetically modified foods, the question of what to call cultured meat has been an issue almost since the beginning. Some of the names bandied about include in-vitro meat, lab meat, cultured meat, vat meat and clean meat. Bryant says a term like “lab meat” highlights the technological aspect of the meat, whereas a phrase like “clean meat” frames it in a more positive light. But it looks like “cultured meat” is the most widely accepted option at the moment
The battle over these new meat alternatives has already turned political, as legislation aimed at preventing companies from using the term “meat” for anything other than conventionally raised meat has now been proposed or has already been passed in a number of jurisdictions.
Proponents of this legislation argue the issue is public confusion, but Bryant says he’s not aware of any actual evidence showing confusion when it comes to cultured meat. “It’s just protectionism of the existing animal farming industry,” he adds.
There is some evidence of confusion about nutritional differences in plant-based meat alternatives—in something like dairy milk as compared to almond milk or the Impossible burger and a beef burger, for example. Impossible meat isn’t more healthful, and could even be much worse, depending on how it’s made and served.
Cultured meat is different, however, because it’s, well, just the same as meat, at least, nutritionally speaking. In fact, it could even be healthier, depending on how the meat is grown. Consumers looking to avoid meat or fish due to an allergy or other dietary restriction need to know that cultured meat is the same as meat, says Bryant. Ultimately, it may be misleading to call it anything else.