Culture shift: Will consumers warm to “clean” meat?

As published in The World of Food Ingredients, June edition.

Cell-cultured meat could play a pivotal role in supplying a growing global population with protein. But how likely are consumers to willingly accept this “lab-grown” product?

Cell-cultured meat – a novel technique to produce meat by culturing animal cells in a suitable medium – has been attracting steady consumer and industry interest since its first unveiling to the public in 2013 by Maastricht University’s Dr. Mark Post. Also the Co-Founder of Mosa Meat, Dr. Post is the creator of the world’s first “slaughterfree” hamburger made from lab-grown cow cells. Since then, steady steps have been made towards scaling up production, while significant investment is fueling start-ups within this space, with funds even coming from meat industry stalwarts. 

Buoyed by the continued growth of the global population, protein demand is set to escalate, with recent Cargill projections naming a potential increase in demand of 70 percent over the next 30 years. Increasingly problematic are the adverse impacts of the agriculture and livestock sectors, which create significant amounts of greenhouse gases. It has been made clear by a numerous studies and NGOs that a drastic shift in diets, as well as a more mindful approach towards production methods, are pivotal in avoiding even more drastic climate change. 

The Taste Advantage 

Still, consumers are not willing to compromise on taste. Besides attracting interest for its promise of slaughter-free protein, cell-grown meat technology eliminates the need for devoting vast tracts of land, water, feed and other resources to raise cattle. 

Yet one major question remains. As investment grows and scaling hurdles shrink, how readily will consumers embrace cell-cultured products? To answer this question, consumption motivations and cultural aspects must be taken into account. Initially, it is likely that there will be differences in attitudes toward clean meat, depending on social backgrounds and geographies. A 2019 exploratory study on consumer perceptions of plant-based and clean meat found that both acceptance and familiarity varied greatly.

Published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, this study gauged the views of 3,030 respondents in the US, India and China. In terms of consumer acceptance of “clean meat,” i.e, cultured meat, the survey found that 23.6 percent of US respondents were “not at all likely to purchase clean meat”; 46.6 percent were “somewhat or moderately likely,” and 29.8 percent were “very or extremely likely.” In China, however, just 6.7 percent of respondents indicated they were “not at all likely to purchase clean meat”; whereas 33.9 percent were “somewhat or moderately likely,” and 59.3 percent were “very or extremely likely.” Considering the continuing growth of the Chinese population, in combination with a middle class seeking to experience the perks of their growing affluence, cultured meat products could find a huge market here. Recent agricultural issues, such as the impact of African Swine Flu on pork imports and China’s domestic pork industry, only further emphasize that potential. Meanwhile, the study findings showed that 48.7 percent of Indian respondents were “very or extremely likely,” compared to the 10.7 percent of Indian respondents who were “not at all likely” to purchase clean meat; and 37.7 percent were “somewhat or moderately likely.” This is interesting considering the vast number of people who forgo eating beef there, typically for religious reasons. 

Context is Key 

The researchers note that future studies could also address the ways social and policy context might affect consumer attitudes toward cultured meat. And as Matt Ball, Senior Media Relations Specialist at the Good Food Institute points out, these are only the initial reactions to clean meat, gleaned before a “cultured meat” product has even arrived on the market. “It is important to keep in mind that most people in the US don’t eat meat because of how it is produced. They eat meat in spite of how it is produced. According to a survey by Oklahoma State University, over two-thirds of consumers are uneasy with how animals are used by the food system, with 47 percent wanting to fully ban slaughterhouses,” Ball notes. This presents future opportunity for cell-cultured alternatives. “Once the two-thirds of consumers who are uncomfortable with raising and slaughtering animals for meat are able to see others happily eating slaughter-free meat, many of those who were wary at first will come around,” he notes.

Unexplored Factors 

The study clearly shows the importance of China and India as potential future markets. “All three markets are substantial, with consumers in China and India showing even more initial interest than the US. These findings indicate that consumer demand in the three most populous countries will be ready when producers begin supplying these markets,” the researchers note. Interestingly, higher familiarity predicted higher acceptance of both plant-based and clean meat across all three countries. However, there are still unexplored factors which could affect consumer acceptance of clean and plant-based meat.

Description is Key

One aspect likely to affect consumers’ perception of the safety and acceptability of cultured meat will be the way it is described and labeled. Invariably, cell-cultured meat is referred to as “clean meat” – most likely referring to the absence of antibiotics commonly used in agricultural processes – or “lab-grown meat” – perpetuating cultured meat’s reputation of hailing from some mysterious, futuristic technology. “‘Lab-grown’ is misleading term when applied to cell-cultured meat. All processed food begins in a food lab, but of course, we don’t call Cheerios ‘lab-created Cheerios’ or ‘lab-brewed beer.’ At scale, clean meat will be produced in a clean facility similar to a brewery,” Ball notes. Considering the current consumer infatuation with processes such as fermentation – deemed a traditional and inherently healthy process – an argument could be made for the reassuring idea of the phrase “cultured” over “lab-grown.”

Scaling for Benefit

Despite growing interest in cultured meat, its actual environmental benefits vis-a-vis traditional livestock methods have been questioned in a University of Oxford study, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in February 2019. This in turn has prompted some cultured meat proponents to point to the need for continued investment and R&D in scaling up cultured meat capabilities. 

Addressing the environmental constraints around lab-grown meat could prove vital to successfully finding consumer acceptance. “My expectation is that adverse environmental effects will easily outweigh other potential societal and personal benefits among consumers,” says Wim Verbeke, Professor of Agro-food Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Ghent University. “The target group for cultured meat will not be willing to compromise with respect to sustainability,” he adds. For Verbeke, proven environmental benefits of cultured meat, compared to conventional meat production, are crucial because this constitutes a key promise and expectation in terms of societal benefits. This is the issue that spontaneously raises doubt among consumers.“When comparing farm-reared meat and the concept lab-grown options, consumers perceive hardly any personal benefits (e.g., taste, nutrition, health), which is logical because of lack of personal experience with the product,” he explains. Therefore, societal benefits are crucial for future acceptance. These relate to ethical animal welfare benefits, global food security and a reduced environmental impact. “There seems to be little uncertainty among consumers about the first two, but there are doubts among consumers about the latter,” Verbeke adds. Technological developments related to energy use and emissions in the upscaling and industrial production, convincing lifecycle analysis studies and scientific consensus about the environmental impacts of alternative meat production systems will be vital to convincing consumers, he notes

Move Over Beef 

When considering the global potential appeal of cell-cultured animal products, it’s not just beef patties that are on the menu. A number of start-ups have come to the fore in recent years, expanding cultured meat offerings to suit different tastes and cultures. Aleph Farms, an Israeli cultured meat innovator best known for introducing a lab-grown minute steak, raised US$12 million in Series A investments in May 2019, with investors including Cargill Protein. This injection of capital will allow Aleph Farms to accelerate product development of cultured meat and grow its meat toward a limited launch within three to four years. Potentially appealing to the Chinese population as well as those nations that see a pronounced avoidance of eating beef, Silicon Valley start-up New Age Meats showcased a cultured pork sausage product to the world last year. In Singapore, Shiok Meats is working on cell-based crustaceans – shrimps, crabs and lobsters. The start-up is seeking to cater to the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population. According to CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Sandhya Sriram, it will take  approximately three to five years for Shiok’s products to reach mass scale production. Also targeting seafood is Californian start-up BlueNalu, which provides sustainable seafood products via its cellular aquaculture process. In April 2019, the company announced a move to a larger research facility that will allow it to complete its initial commercialization goals. BlueNalu plans to develop products from finfish, crustaceans and mollusks that are overfished, primarily imported and difficult to farm-raise. Never in recent history has there been such a boom in foodtech investment and within that, the futuristic space of cell-cultured alternatives is particularly profound. As upscaling technology helps fuel production and word of mouth sparks greater consumer knowledge, it will be exciting to see how many global consumers will be willing to tuck into a lab-grown burger just a few years down the line.

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