Would you eat “clean meat”?

What’s in a name?
What’s in a name?
Image: AP Photo/Christopher Barth
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There’s no shortage of buzz among food-tech companies about how, once perfected, cell-cultured meats will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere, use less land and water, and save billions of animals each year from slaughter. But as these high-tech meats edge closer to grocery stores and restaurants, the people creating them are wrestling with a crucial question: What do you call them?

It’s a good but vexing problem. The need to find a name indicates how close the technology is to jumping from lab to market. But translating terminology from scientific jargon to consumer-friendly lingo is nettlesome. Forces within the nascent cell-cultured meat industry are working to get everyone to coalesce around one name: clean meat.

Not everyone agrees with the choice. For starters, the term “clean meat” doesn’t translate into all non-English languages easily. In Dutch, for instance, it carries unappealing connotations about how the meat might be processed. Also, some have complained the term implies conventional meat—the only kind people currently can access—is inherently dirty. That could risk putting people on the defensive from the get-go.

The task is to pick something that conveys the science—that cell-cultured meat, on a molecular level, is the same thing as conventional meat from a slaughtered animal—to potential customers, without alienating them or making them distrustful of the product. At least 28 focus groups, surveys, and studies have been conducted to figure out what marketing term will make fake meat stick.

What the research says

In the early 1950s, the godfather of cell-cultured meat, Willem van Eelen, used a term that carried with it all the connotations of a sterile university laboratory. And unsurprisingly, “in vitro meat” just isn’t the sort of thing the average modern home cook can imagine feeding their family, or what you’d want to order off a restaurant menu while on a date. So, since then, a number of euphemisms have been conceived for meat that is meat but does not come from an animal.

Christopher Bryant undertook a systematic review of all the relevant literature on the naming of lab-grown meat, as part of his doctoral project at the University of Bath in the UK. He also conducted research of his own. He found that, so far, it’s impossible to say definitively that one phrase offers more clarity about the product than others. In part, Bryant argues, there’s a methodological problem: the surveys and studies all ask people whether they might eat a hypothetical future food. It would be better if the food existed for them to see and taste as they considered names. Still, he was able to glean insight into how people understand some names over others.

In his own research, Bryant wanted to see how people responded to four alternatives: “cultured meat,” “lab-grown meat,” “animal-free meat,” and “clean meat.” He had his study participants indicate their expectations about the healthfulness, safety, appeal, and trustworthiness of products with each of these appellations. In the same study, Bryant tried giving other participants the different names, with no explanation, and asking them to characterize each.

Here’s what Bryant’s research found, which he says was similar to findings of other studies:

  • Cultured meat: People found it somewhat confusing, associating the term with cured, salted, or pickled meats.
  • Lab-grown meat: Participants had all sorts of incorrect assumptions when faced with this term, Bryant says, mainly related to threats to their health.
  • Animal-free meat: Most people connected it with a type of vegan product that didn’t reflect the advanced science behind the product, which on a molecular level is the same thing as animal meat.
  • Clean meat: Unlike other names, clean meat immediately implies a kind of dirtiness to conventional meat. Still, the data show more people are likely to choose to eat cell-cultured meat when it’s called “clean meat” than any other term.

“Any name you could use carries with it connotations and associations,” Bryant says. “There is no neutral name, and yet it has to be called something.”

Heralding “clean meat”

Bruce Friedrich, who leads The Good Food Institute, an organization that supports and lobbies on behalf of cell-cultured-meat companies, says the way forward is to start standardizing use of the term “clean meat.” He’s been so effective at pushing the name that top executives at major meat companies such as Cargill and Tyson Foods have adopted the term.

The term “clean meat” is meant to evoke the same feelings among the public as “clean energy.” It’s an attempt to convey to shoppers that meat grown in industrial bioreactors will be more environmentally sustainable because the process requires less water than and emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases as factory farms.

The phrase is also designed to communicate that meat grown in sterile, controlled environment is literally cleaner than farm-raised animal products. When compared side-by-side with regular meat, the scientists behind “clean meat” say their product has no need for antibiotics to ward off harmful bacteria.

According to Friedrich, “clean meat” is an imperfect but effective way to accentuate the positive food-safety and environmental impacts of the technology without giving consumers misleading impressions about how it’s made. “It is no more accurate to say that clean meat is ‘lab grown’ than it is to say that Cheerios and commercial peanut butter are ‘lab created,'” he wrote in a 2016 blog post. “All processed foods start in a food laboratory, of course, but with clean meat, the end result is real, pure meat.” The term “cultured,” he says, won’t work because it’s already used to denote fermentation or aging—a meaning that doesn’t align with the processes of creating the product at hand.

Friedrich says the debate over what to call cell-cultured meat was brought up at the young industry’s first product-specific conference, held earlier this year in Haifa, Israel. Most present were receptive to “clean meat.”

Shir Friedman, co-founder of the Israeli startup Super Meat, says she’s found the term to be a great way to engage people. “At the end of the day, it’s a conversation starter,” Friedman says. “Usually [another person’s] first reaction is to ask, ‘Why clean?’ And you’re at this level where they can understand. It’s amazing.”

Simple motto: Be kind

There is some dissent, however. Mark Post—the Dutch vascular physiologist who in 2013 demonstrated in London his creation of the world’s first cell-cultured burger patty (worth more than $300,000 at the time)—has noted that “clean meat” doesn’t translate well into other languages. In Dutch, for instance, it conjures images of a food product being run through detergent. Post’s opinion carries some weight; he heads up Mosa Meat, one of the eight companies in the world currently looking to get cell-cultured meat to market.

And Ira van Eelen, the daughter of the scientist who in 1994 first laid out in a patent the concept for lab-grown meat, is also skeptical about the term “clean meat.” Her motto is simple: Be kind.”If you want to tell somebody to do something better, don’t tell them something that they are doing right now is dirty,” van Eelen says. “It’s not fair because that’s the only meat they have. Culturally, it’s quite normal that people are eating meat.”

Van Eelen is an advisor to the company that will likely have to make the first decision about labeling: Hampton Creek. “Certainly we need to come up with something before the end of next year that resonates,” says CEO Josh Tetrick. The San Francisco-based company has said it expects to get a cell-cultured meat product to market in some form in 2018—though details remain under wraps. Tetrick says he is comfortable with the term “clean meat,” but also believes it’s imperfect.

Really, he would like to call it what it is on the molecular level: Meat. Just meat. No modifiers.