Clean Meat and Cell-Based Meat: What’s in a Name?

Is Memphis Meats’ delicious chicken clean or cell-based (or both)?

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

When people first hear of a new food, it’s hard to shake off that initial impression, and we know from ample research that how a food is described has an influence on people’s willingness to consume it. (Just think about how labeling a food “vegan” vs. “plant-based” impacts its popularity, for example.)

From Lab-Grown to Cultured to Clean

So in the earliest years of the movement to produce real meat grown from animal cells, it was a detriment that so many people referred to the food with science-heavy terms like “in vitro meat” or “lab-grown meat.” Despite the fact that virtually all food we eat today is the product of science, it just doesn’t whet many appetites to think that something other than “nature” produced our food.

It’s for that reason that the lead researchers in the field, at a Swedish conference in 2011, all agreed to start calling the food “cultured meat.” That switch led to the popularization of “cultured” in journal articles, mainstream media stories, and more. And if you type “in vitro meat” into Wikipedia even today, it mercifully automatically redirects you to its page entitled “Cultured meat.”

But six years after the official name change, some of the food’s advocates weren’t so convinced that “cultured” really was the best term to use and decided to put it to the test. It turned out that when tested with consumers, although far better than “petri dish meat” and “lab-grown burgers,” “cultured meat” generated pretty negative responses.

I was a proponent of using “cultured” until numerous consumer surveys found it really made people less likely to want to eat such meat. In fact, it was a 2017 focus group conducted by New Harvest that really sealed the coffin on “cultured” for many people. The New Harvest focus group on the topic was stark, finding that “cultured meat” is a good way to turn consumers off, noting that “participants have a more negative reaction to the term.” The study concluded that “Cultured meat generates the most questions and concerns, and this application meets the most resistance.”

Since then, “clean meat” has become the term of choice for most of the start-ups in the field, both as a nod to clean energy and to its actual cleanliness from a food safety perspective. We know from numerous surveys conducted by several groups that consumers are favorable to the term, which has now caught on in significant ways.

Enter Cell-Based

After two years of “clean” being a preferred convention by many in the field, recently a joint letter signed by Memphis Meats — the first company ever founded in order to commercialize such meat and an early popularizer of the term “clean meat” — and the North American Meat Institute offered a new name to consider. “Moving forward,” the joint letter notes, “we will use the term ‘cell-based meat and poultry’ to describe the products that are the result of animal cell culture.”

Going from “clean” to a science-heavier name like “cell-based meat” is certainly something that thoughtful people like Dr. Uma Valeti, Memphis Meats’ CEO, wouldn’t do without much deliberation. After all, Valeti is a big reason so many have used “clean.” And the majority of start-ups, but not all, in this space recently agreed to use to switch to “cell-based,” as Elaine Watson at Food Navigator points out.

In talking with companies for this piece, two start-ups told me they’re content with “cell-based” if everyone else uses it, two of the start-ups told me that they don’t plan on using “cell-based meat” as they suspect it will turn consumers off, and yet others indicated to me that they’re fine with the term for now but want to see what actual consumer data finds before committing to it.

Will Consumers Want to Eat Cells?

While there’s no published research yet testing how “cell-based meat” is perceived by consumers, what if it turns out that consumers are about as eager to eat “cells” as they are to eat “DNA”? Of course, nearly all food we eat is made of cells and DNA, but few consumers know that. In fact, more than 80 percent of Americans believe food manufacturers should be forced to disclose which foods contain DNA.

The Good Food Institute’s Jessica Almy told Food Navigator, “we are in the process of doing some consumer research, and once we have done so, we will want to have a full discussion that includes all of the market players.”

Without predicting the results, it seems probable that a science-y term like “cell-based meat” likely won’t perform as well as consumer-friendlier terms like “clean meat.” Barb Stuckey, a consumer expert and president of the food development company Mattson, argued this point to Food Navigator, cautioning, “I hear the word ‘cell,’ I think laboratories, the human body. The word worries me very much.”

So, why the switch?

Pros and Cons

The main arguments for calling it “cell-based meat” seem to me to be:

1) It’s a term that doesn’t make ag industry stakeholders uncomfortable.The meat industry and some regulators favor “cell-based meat” since they think “clean meat” implies conventional meat is dirty. Getting their buy-in is important to hastening commercialization. “Memphis Meats is using the term ‘cell-based meat’,” Dr. Valeti told me, “because it allows us to clearly and productively discuss this industry with a wide range of stakeholders, including regulators and industry incumbents.”

2) The term describes the process by which the meat is made, which may be important to some consumers. It helps differentiate between plant-based meats (growing plants to produce meat), animal-based meats (raising animals to produce meat), and now cell-based meats (growing animal cells to produce meat).

3) “Clean meat” isn’t and never will be a regulatory term, and there’s a long history at the FDA of regulating “cell-based” products. In other words, the term’s use could help further establish the food as something more familiar to regulators.

On the other hand:

1) All meat is cell-based, as are all plant-based meats, so it’s not much of differentiating term.

2) So far at least there’s no actual evidence regarding what consumers think of the term. Some proponents of “cell-based” think it’s a neutral-sounding term, while people like Stuckey think it could be a turn-off. As I wrote about with regard to Jack Bobo’s interesting proposal to call it “craft meat,” the naming decision is best guided at least in part by actual evidence of what consumers think. For what it’s worth, with regard to “cell-based,” Bobo told me that he doesn’t think it matters so much what the food is called when talking with regulators, but that when talking with consumers, “I’m sure no one is going to say ‘try our cell-based meatballs!’”

3) If it turns out that “cell-based meat” is less appetizing to consumers than “cultured meat,” would a reversion to “cultured” be a better way to bring on more meat industry support for the field without having to use “cell-based”? Perhaps the train has left the station on the issue anyway, but I’d be interested in seeing how the two terms perform against each other.

Evidence-Based Naming: Choosing Accuracy and Effectiveness

The biggest factors in my mind for name selection ought to be both factual accuracy as well as effectiveness. “Clean meat” seems to me to be accurate on both counts, though I’m certainly open to something that would be even better.

While consumers may not find “clean meat” very explanatory because of its lack of descriptive nature, we know from every survey conducted on the topic that consumers are favorable to the term. It’s possible that a term like “cell-based” could be used when talking in some contexts and not others. Think, for example, of the difference between saying “photovoltaic cells” and “clean energy.”

Chris Bryant, a bright researcher whose work focuses on consumer acceptance of such products, thinks that perhaps there’s more to consider than just consumer acceptance. “My bet is that ‘cell-based meat’ is less appealing to consumers than ‘clean meat’ (and Memphis Meats could probably guess that) but this decision has been taken for other reasons.”

One such factor could be regulatory acceptance, which is of course an existential issue for this budding field. As New Age Meats CEO Brian Spears told Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin, “Cell-based meat is a better label to bring [the meat industry] on board,” Spears said. “We want to make winners instead of losers. Losers will fight you, winners will fight with you.”

In the End

I’ll be very interested to see GFI’s (and others’) consumer acceptance results on “cell-based meat.” Presuming it performs worse than “clean,” there are of course still other factors to consider, as noted above. In addition to a quantitative survey, what would be helpful would be qualitative focus groups that can offer the consumers themselves a chance to tell researchers what comes to mind when they hear about “cell-based meat.” Do they think it’s appetizing, are they turned off, or is it neutral? Only research can tell us, and research should help guide the process.

My intuition is that while there may be reasons for using “cell-based” in discussions with regulators and the meat industry, when communicating with the public it might be wiser to continue using what’s been shown to be both accurate and effective with consumers, whether that’s “clean meat” or something else that does better. If another term is accurate and is shown by evidence to perform better than “clean meat,” I’d happily switch to that term.

In the end, however, it seems that everyone in this budding field, especially Valeti, agrees on what the food is. Just as ice made via complicated technology that cools water doesn’t have a special name (we just call it “ice,”), eventually the best name for meat grown from animal cells will be exactly what is is: meat.

“Our products are meat, plain and simple,” Valeti told me.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the Washington Post bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.