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Published October 31st, 2023

The clean meat conundrum: navigating consumer acceptance

When you hear the term 'clean meat', what springs to mind?

Do you imagine chlorine-treated chicken or a bioprinted steak that’s free from harmful chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics? Is the use of the word ‘clean’ confusing and ambiguous or does it make you think of a healthier and more sustainable meat production process?

Also known as cell-based, cultivated, or lab-grown meat, clean meat is produced in a controlled environment without exposure to harmful bacteria or contaminants and without the need for animal slaughter. But despite the potential benefits, the topic of clean meat has sparked a heated debate, with concerns ranging from the safety of the product to the ethical implications of its production.

Much of the confusion stems from the terminology used to describe it; some argue that the term ‘clean’ is misleading and could be seen as inflammatory by those working within the animal agriculture industry, while others argue that it accurately represents the environmental and ethical benefits of this new technology. It’s evident that consumer acceptance remains a significant challenge.

In this article, we will explore the concept behind calling the meat 'clean', what clean meat is made of, how it's made, and most importantly, how we can navigate consumer acceptance to ensure the success of this groundbreaking technology for a more efficient and resilient food system.

What is clean meat?

Clean meat refers to meat that has been cultivated in a controlled environment using a small sample of real animal cells as a starter. It’s a form of cellular agriculture, which is where cells are cultivated using various techniques such as bioreactors and tissue engineering to create genuine meat, seafood, and other animal products without the need for traditional animal agriculture.

Clean meat is cultivated in a controlled environment to make genuine meat, seafood, and other animal products

One other pioneering method in the field of cellular agriculture is precision fermentation, which employs microorganisms to produce specific proteins, fats, or other compounds.

How is clean meat made?

Meat cultivation involves harvesting stem cells from animal tissue samples, which are then stabilized and stored to establish stem cell lines. To increase their biomass to a point that they can be used to create end products, the cells are cultivated in bioreactors with an oxygen-rich cell culture medium containing the nutrients and growth factors required to grow cells outside of an animal’s body.

Cell differentiation into mature meat cells (skeletal muscle, fat, and connective tissue) is stimulated by various factors, and the differentiated cells are isolated and processed into clean meats like chicken nuggets, 3D-printed steaks, or burgers.

GFI has cleverly likened this process to the cultivation of plants, whereby cuttings are taken and grown in nutrient-rich environments; a narrative that most people can easily understand and relate to.

The cultivated meat production process can be likened to the cultivation of plants in greenhouses

The ‘clean’ meat concept

The concept of 'clean' meat emerged as a way to differentiate it from conventional meat, which is often associated with health risks, environmental issues, and animal welfare concerns. Clean meat is considered a more sustainable, efficient, and ethical alternative because it is produced using cellular agriculture, which does not require the rearing, feeding, and slaughtering of animals.

The term 'clean' also refers to the fact that it does not contain any antibiotics, hormones, or other contaminants that may be found in conventional meat. Additionally, clean meat is produced in controlled conditions, meaning that it could have a lower risk of foodborne illness.

However, the use of the term 'clean' has been a point of contention for many, as we’ll explore in more detail below.

The nomenclature debate

Depending on who you ask, the terminology used to describe meat produced through cellular agriculture can vary. Some proponents of the technology prefer the term ‘cultivated meat’, while others prefer ‘lab-grown’, ‘cell-based’, or ‘cultured meat’.

As we’ve touched upon, the term ‘clean meat’ itself is often used to emphasize the potential benefits of the technology, such as enhanced health and nutrition, reduced environmental impact, and improved animal welfare.

However, some have criticized the term as being misleading or inflammatory. It could be argued that the use of the word ‘clean’ implies that conventionally produced meat is 'dirty' or unsafe, which has the potential to generate animosity. Whilst clean meat does offer numerous advantages over conventional meat, it’s important to foster good relations and promote collaboration in the pursuit of a more sustainable and resilient food system.

In September 2021, GFI reported a significant shift towards the use of ‘cultivated meat’ as the primary nomenclature used by companies. Based on a thorough consumer research study they conducted in collaboration with Mattson and UPSIDE Foods, GFI also revealed that ‘cultivated’ stood out as the most appealing and consumer-favored term.

Clean meat, cultivated, lab-grown…what difference does it make?

Veggie burgers, veggie discs. Soy sausages, soy stuffed cylinders. Seitan steaks, slabs of gluten. Avocado toast, alligator pears on warmed bread.

As you can see, words matter. Particularly when it comes to the nomenclature of food.

The different terms used to refer to clean meat may seem interchangeable, but they can carry different connotations and implications. When the ultimate goal of these different terms is to promote the acceptance and adoption of clean meat, understanding and effectively communicating the nuances between them can help us better navigate this complex and rapidly evolving field.

Consumers may feel uncomfortable or hesitant about eating meat that has been created using scientific processes they are unfamiliar with

Since it illustrates the parallel between familiar food production (e.g. the cultivation of plants in greenhouses or the cultivation of microbes to produce beer) and clean meat production, ‘cultivated meat’ may serve as the best way to communicate a narrative to introduce this new form of meat production to the lay public.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Fry pointed out on Twitter, the history and nature of language development will ultimately decide.

Navigating consumer acceptance

Deciding upon the most appropriate and appealing nomenclature (and then satisfying novel food regulators without antagonizing the conventional meat industry) is just one of the challenges of navigating consumer acceptance.

Regardless of what we choose to call it, some may feel uncomfortable or hesitant about consuming a product that is created using scientific processes they are unfamiliar with. Transparency and education are two approaches clean meat companies might focus on to mitigate this; consumer education campaigns, transparent labeling, and collaborations with food industry stakeholders can all help build trust and increase acceptance of clean meats.

Admittedly, it will take time and effort to overcome the initial reluctance of some consumers. However, as more people become aware of the benefits of clean meat, it's likely that consumer acceptance will continue to increase.

A clean and bright future for meat production

Navigating consumer acceptance of clean meat is a complex challenge; while some consumers are excited about the prospect of a more sustainable and ethical meat industry, others are hesitant to embrace meat grown ex vivo.

Developing suitable nomenclature and appealing, accurate, and accessible terminology is crucial to the narrative and subsequent continued growth of the clean meat industry. In addition, clean meat companies must educate consumers about the science behind their products and address any concerns they may have to establish consumer trust and acceptance.

Ready to learn more?

If you're a clean meat company looking to navigate the complex challenge of consumer acceptance, reach out to us at Bright Green Partners. We can help you develop a progressive framework that meets the demands of increasingly conscious consumers while staying up-to-date with the latest cultivated industry developments.

Ready to discover what alt protein strategies could mean for your business? Discuss it in a 30 minute call with our Managing Partner, Floor.
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