Clean Meat, Craft Meat, or Something Else?

The world’s first clean meatball, or the world’s first craft meatball? Either way, Memphis Meats made it!

When Jack Bobo speaks, I listen.

In addition to being named by Scientific American as one of the top 100 most influential people in biotech, the former State Department official is just a great science communicator. And he’s got a lot of thoughts about something I contemplate often: how can we lighten humanity’s footprint on the planet even as our numbers rapidly swell toward 10 billion?

So when I received a few emails last week from people asking for my thoughts about Bobo’s recent suggestion that supporters of clean meat — real meat grown from animal cells rather than from whole animals — start calling calling the food “craft meat” instead, I knew it was a proposal worth taking seriously.

As someone who wrote the book “Clean Meat” and gave a TEDx talk with a similar name, such a switch would certainly make me rethink what to entitle future editions and speeches.

Lots of C-words

Clean meat, craft meat, cultured meat…judging by the names most commonly suggested, you’d think there’s some linguistic law that requires only the use of C-words to modify this kind of meat. And amusingly, for what it’s worth, the first three clean meat companies founded were Modern Meadow, Memphis Meats, and Mosa Meat. (I presume they all support Meatless Monday…)

“Clean meat” is certainly the term of choice for nearly every start-up working in the space today, but for a long time the field struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. Dating back to Jason Matheny’s popularization of the field in the mid-2000s, scientific (and unappetizing) terms like “in vitro meat,” “lab-grown meat,” “petri dish meat,” and so on were commonly used in the press. Not exactly names that whet many appetites. Hence the term “cultured meat” came into vogue among scientists working on the issue.

For about a decade, essentially all the academics in the cellular-agriculture community came to adopt “cultured meat” as their term of choice. In fact, at a 2011 Swedish conference, the leading researchers in the field officially agreed to the “cultured” switch as it was so clearly preferable to the other terms being used at the time. Even today, if you type “in vitro meat” into Wikipedia, it mercifully automatically redirects you to its page entitled “Cultured meat.”

It wouldn’t be until 2016 that the shift away from “cultured” began in earnest, but as far back as 2008, there were already some people championing “clean.” Wesleyan psychology professor Scott Plous published a letter to the editor in the New York Times, for example, in which he made the case. Bristling that the Times had referred to the food as “fake meat,” Plous protested in his letter: “The commercial development of meat from animal tissue won’t result in ‘fake meat’ any more than cloning sheep results in fake sheep. Quite the contrary, lab-based techniques have the potential to yield far purer meat, uncontaminated with growth hormones, pesticides, E. coli bacteria or food additives. A more accurate name for the end result would therefore be ‘clean meat.’”

Despite Plous’ efforts, no one in the industry appears to have noticed his plea, and “cultured” became the preferred term because the scientists working on the issue thought it sounded best. That is, until 2016, when the Good Food Institute conducted the first consumer poll to determine what might be the best term to use when talking about this new food to the public. The poll tested the five terms offered for the survey by the leading scientists in the field: “cultured meat,” “pure meat,” “clean meat,” “safe meat,” and “Meat 2.0.”

The results were pretty stark. In the two surveys GFI conducted, “cultured” ranked fourth out of five in terms of consumer acceptance. In first place: clean meat. A subsequent 2016 survey from Animal Charity Evaluators also found “clean meat” to be the most compelling of the terms tested.

What about “cultured”?

Having the only studies on the topic all confirming “clean meat” as the best-performing term with consumers was enough to persuade many of the food’s supporters, myself included. You could say that I wasn’t exactly an early adopter of “clean,” resisting its use for some time even during the first few months I was writing a book on the topic.

But 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.” Going even further, the study concluded that “Cultured meat generates the most questions and concerns, and this application meets the most resistance.”

Could the study’s authors be clearer? Yes, actually, they could be: “The discussions reveal that participants generally find the term ‘cultured meat’ unappealing and associate it with processed meat, preservatives, and genetic engineering…Participants strongly prefer the term ‘clean meat’ over ‘cultured meat…’”

Why (and why not) “clean”?

The New Harvest focus group participants certainly preferred “clean” over “cultured,” though they weren’t in love with “clean,” either. There’s also a concern about how the term translates into other languages.

While no term is perfect, GFI made a forceful case as to why “clean meat” is the best of the options so far proposed. I’ll let their blogs speak for themselves (see here and here), but they essentially make the case that “clean” not only is the most consumer-friendly term, but it’s also the most accurate. And judging by Google searches on the topic, it appears that “clean meat” has — for now, at least — won this battle.

“Clean meat” is of course a nod to “clean energy” (the environmental benefit is likely to be massive), but such meat is also literally cleaner, since it’s grown in a sterile environment and far less likely to be contaminated. Think about it: they’re not growing intestines, so there’s much less risk of intestinal pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella. In fact, as some clean meat start-ups have already realized, their meat is so free from bacterial loads that when left out at room temperature, it becomes infected at far slower rates than conventional meat. (Don’t worry: They still say people ought to keep it refrigerated.)

Such cleanliness benefits are compelling to safe food advocates like Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The man who’s crusaded against the dangers of food additives such as trans fat and olestra is optimistic about the promise of clean meat. “It’s a good way to have animal products that would be a lot safer to consume and more sustainable to produce,” he told me. “I’d be happy to eat it.”

Enter “craft meat”

Who doesn’t like craft foods? You can almost see the Brooklyn awning now: “Craft meat brewed in small batches by local artisans using time-cherished recipes handed down from their great-grandparents.” Well, maybe not the last part, but you get the point. People tend to associate good things with “craft” products.

Bobo’s argument for “craft” is not only about that positive association, but it’s also against “clean.” He asserts that “clean meat” too closely associates the food with a moral underpinning (e.g., clean energy) and can therefore be off-putting to people. (For more on this phenomenon, see NPR’s “Do These Jeans Make Me Look Unethical?”)

I’m inclined to take any suggestion Bobo makes seriously and so would welcome seeing “craft” actually tested in consumer surveys and focus groups. I have an open mind about it and would change my usage if the evidence clearly suggested it was the best term. But there is another consideration aside from what consumers like: what name makes the most intuitive sense?

“Clean meat” is literally true: the meat is cleaner than conventional meat and is less likely to sicken you, something very easy to explain. Gifted science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson even proclaimed himself persuaded on the term “clean meat” when presented with the food safety case for the name. It also invokes clean energy — thereby focusing immediately on the benefits of the production method — which makes talking about it resonate intuitively with many people.

“Craft meat” is a subjective term with tens of thousands of Google hits already that have nothing to do with cellular agriculture. This is in contrast to “clean meat,” searches for which are dominated by the relevant topic. Further, at least in Google Docs, it tries to correct “craft foods” by turning it into “Kraft foods,” as in the food brand.

That said, “craft meat” does avoid some concerns about “clean meat” and has the benefit of pointing out that its makers can really craft their own types of meat when brewing it. (Tuna-duck-beef steak, anyone?) While it’s tough for me to see “craft” prevailing against “clean” in a survey, maybe it would. At a minimum, it’s easy to see the category being called “clean meat,” with some purveyors advertising their clean meats as “craft.”

When I discussed this with Bobo prior to publishing this piece, he was extremely gracious and told me: “If clean meat were being marketed to the public in the terms you describe I would be right there with you in support of the term ‘clean meat.’ My only comment then would be that the term clean meat is far more often used in the context of animal-free meat with all the moral and ethical baggage that entails.” He went on to note that he’d like to see how “craft” performs in future surveys, something based on a conversation I had with GFI’s Bruce Friedrich I believe will soon happen.

The final word

It’s hard to trust our intuitions on these kinds of issues; at least it’s hard for me to trust mine. For years people like me used “cultured meat” since we thought it was effective, until actual studies found the opposite. I look forward to seeing the results of GFI’s next survey with Bobo’s suggestion of “craft meat” in it.

In the meantime, as I’ve argued before, while “clean meat” is an appropriate term that’s helpful to use now, in the end, the most accurate way to describe this food will simply be “meat,” because that’s exactly what it is. In the same way that we call digital photos just “photos,” and mobile telephones just “phones,” and freezer-made ice just “ice,” this meat — whatever you call it — is real, actual animal meat.

It’s helpful to have differentiating terms now, but in the future, just as with ice, we may simply know it as “meat” and come to think of it as the most normal way we get animal protein.

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