At The Good Food Institute, when we’re discussing meat that’s produced through tissue engineering, we’ve taken to using the term “clean meat” rather than “cultured meat.”
First, “clean meat” is a more accurate way of describing real meat grown without animal slaughter. Second, “clean meat” is similar to “clean energy” in that it immediately communicates important aspects of the technology—both the environmental benefits and the decrease in food-borne pathogens and drug residues.
The word “cultured” often creates one or two false impressions in the mind of the lay listener. First, calling it “cultured meat” creates an inaccurate sense of what clean meat production will look like at scale. When you explain to someone that “cultured meat” is meat produced in a culture instead of in a live animal, inevitably you conjure an image of meat produced in a petri dish. But that’s wrong, of course. Although the process involves petri dishes and laboratories at the earliest stages, clean meat production will happen in the equivalent of giant meat fermenters once it’s at production scale. Growing meat at scale will look like a beer brewery or a greenhouse, not like a laboratory.
It is no more accurate to say that clean meat is “lab grown” than it is to say that Cheerios and commercial peanut butter are “lab created.” All processed foods start in a food laboratory, of course, but with clean meat, the end result is real, pure meat. Unlike much processed food, the final product is the same as the product produced in nature. In short, there will be no labs involved at commercial scale, and the product is identical to what you would get from a slaughtered animal, so to the degree the phrase “cultured meat” conjures images of petri dishes and laboratories, that phrase gives a false impression.
Second, “cultured” already has a food meaning, and it’s entirely distinct from what we’re talking about with regard to tissue-engineered meat. GFI senior scientist Christie Lagally explains that some food scientists at the Institute of Food Technologists conference thought “cultured meat” was canned, salted, cured, or aged, much like yogurt. Google “cultured dairy” or “cultured milk” to see what I’m talking about. And as companies start getting into cultured (clean) fish, things might really get confusing, since right now all the top Google search results for “cultured fish” are for aquaculture; the last thing we want is for cultured/clean fish companies to be confused with aquaculture.
Christie notes that “cultured” can be easily confused with the commonly referenced processing technique, while “clean meat” does not yet have a common meaning when referring to meat, and it also describes this product more accurately by stating the benefits (i.e. clean from bacteria, clean from feces, and overall cleaner for the environment), much like “clean energy.”
As an aside, “clean meat” does turn up some Google hits, but they’re all for Biblically clean meats, and they are all very small websites; the common way of discussing Biblically clean (or more typically “unclean”) meat is to refer to pure vs. impure or kosher/halal and not kosher/halal. There is not even a Wikipedia entry for “clean meat,” indicating the infrequency of the term’s use.
Accentuating the Positive
When we talk about the fact that this meat is “clean,” our conversations immediately focus on the aspects of this technology that are the most relevant and beneficial for consumers: namely, that this meat is cleaner than the meat from slaughtered animals, both in terms of basic sanitation and environmental friendliness. See, for example, this Memphis Meats slide comparing the bacterial growth and antibiotic residues found (or not found) on conventional, organic, and clean meat.
When we used to use the term “cultured meat,” we spent our time explaining the culturing process. Now, we spend our time talking about how clean meat will not make people sick, is free of antibiotic residues, is totally transparent in its production process, and is much better for the environment.
First impressions are critical. We don’t want to start a discussion by having to disabuse people of negative associations and inaccurate assumptions; we want to start with a discussion of one of the key advantages of clean meat—that it’s clean.
Calling the product what it is—clean meat—both accurately describes it and helps to communicate some of its key benefits quickly and easily. We are not suggesting that “clean meat” is a perfect way of referring to meat produced without animal slaughter, but we are suggesting that talking about “clean meat” versus “cultured meat” promotes clarity and acceptance, both of which are critical when having conversations about this world-changing technology.
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