Cultured or cell-based? The struggle to find the right name for lab-grown meat

A meaty question.
A meaty question.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
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The debate over what to call cell-cultured meat remains unresolved—and it could soon develop into a headache for the global lab-grown meat technology startups working to bring clean meat to consumers.

The window of opportunity to unify around a term for motherless meat is closing. If cultivated meat companies such as JUST, Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, and Finless Foods want to present a consistent face before the first cell-based meat is unveiled to consumers, they’ll likely have to act in 2020. That’s when industry insiders speculate Singaporean food regulators will be the first in the world to approve serving in vitro meat.

“We have a golden—and short—opportunity to proactively inform public opinion about this game-changing method of meat production,” the non-profit Good Food Institute says on its website. “This is the time to align on an effective message and a compelling category name.”

Back in 2013, when the possibility of growing meat in a laboratory setting was first introduced in London (paywall), the term “lab-grown meat” dominated international headlines. The unveiling of a real product on the market will likely draw the same kind of attention—offering a rare second chance to make a first impression on consumers.

Unlike plant-based meat imitators, these alternatives are grown from actual animal cells into fat and muscle tissue, producing a real meat product without killing an animal. The process is said to leave a much smaller environmental footprint than conventional animal agriculture.

But what are people supposed to call this new meat when they talk about it with their friends and family? Producers say it won’t be grown in labs in the future. Instead, it will be in standard food processing facilities. So what wording will distinguish it from conventional meat? Is it in vitro meat? Too weird, some say. Lab-grown meat? Not accurate. Animal-free meat? Nope. Motherless meat? Immaculate meat? Those are long shots, too.

Ask people working in the industry about their collective indecision and many respond with groans. Some even say they don’t rank the naming issue as a high priority.

“There appears to be consensus that it would be good to align on a name, but not enough consensus to actually decide on one,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, which supports plant-based and cell-cultured companies.

On the back burner

“It’s kind of a spicy topic,” says Meera Zassenhaus, of the non-profit group New Harvest, which works to support the scientific work behind making cell-cultured foods a reality. The group has stuck with the term ‘cultured meat’ since 2004, referring to the method by which the animal cells are grown. “It is descriptive,” says Zassenhaus, “but it isn’t obfuscating the scientific process behind it.”

Still, Zassenhaus says the overall industry is “fractured as ever” on a term. That’s evident from watching how companies have shifted their language as the popularity of terms ebbed and flowed.

“Clean meat was the original label, and of course that’s changed over time to cultured,” says Brian Spears, the founder and CEO of New Age Meats. “Then there was cell-based. And now we are a cultivated company.”

But naming the product is on the back burner for Spears and several other companies in their earlier stages. The naming issue, he says, is more relevant for companies that are close to getting a product to the market, such as JUST and Memphis Meats. “The basic term for it should be something that is accurate and comforting,” says Josh Balk, who co-founded JUST.

“We are very aligned on so many things,” Spears says, “how we think about our mission, our infrastructure, what our timelines are—but the nomenclature question just rarely comes up.”

Except when it does.

Recently, tension over the naming debate bubbled up on Twitter between Friedrich and Mike Selden, the co-founder and CEO of cell-cultured fish startup Finless Foods. As executive director of the Good Food Institute, Friedrich in early 2017 started championing the term ‘clean meat.’ A lot of startups adopted the term, but some chose not to, saying it conveyed that the meat was being run through detergent. The term ‘clean meat’ was ultimately pushed aside in August 2018 in favor of ‘cell-based.’ 

Only Friedrich didn’t adopt ‘cell-based.’ Instead, he started using ‘cultivated meat,’ arguing that use of the term was backed with real data (pdf). Not everyone is a fan:

Part of the issue is that there’s a leadership vacuum. For awhile, the Good Food Institute served as the de facto lobbying and representing group for the burgeoning cell-cultured meat industry. Then five prominent Silicon Valley-based startups decided to start a more official trade group for the industry. On August 29, JUST, Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, BlueNalu, and Fork and Goode created the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation (AMPS).

In the three-and-a-half months since its founding, though, the group has not hired a full-time staff. Nor has its grown its membership ranks to include the more than three dozen other companies in the space.

It might matter a lot

Some company executives may feel fine leaving the naming issue low on a list of priorities, but not everyone agrees that’s the best path forward.

“I do think it matters quite a lot because we know what a food is called has an impact on whether people will want to buy it or not,” says Paul Shapiro, founder of the Better Meat Company. “I’m one of the people who thinks this really does matter.”

As detailed in a 2017 article published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, the team behind the first public unveiling of cell-cultured meat science in London in 2013 painstakingly planned the event, down to the terms that would be used when speaking with media.

“Before the press conference, there was no culturally available definition with the resonance to persist and bring together shared meanings,” the research states. “After 2013, the cultured burger and the media event around it provide a foothold, a reference point for future sense-making practices about what in vitro meat is.”

If cell-cultured meat goes through a similar media spectacle in 2020, it’ll be another opportunity for consumers to make sense of it all.