Slaughter-free meat is coming, and soon. San Francisco–based company Just — which already produces a range of eggless mayonnaise and eggless scramble — says it is planning to release a chicken product by the end of 2018. And the second-largest company in the field, Memphis Meats, which has produced slaughter-free meatballs and chicken strips, expects its first sales at high-end restaurants in 2019.
These companies make the meat by taking cells, such as those in a chicken’s feather, and replicating the process that happens in an animal’s body by feeding the cells nutrients, sugar and growth factors to create meat without the need to ever kill an animal.
People love meat, but they are increasingly uncomfortable with the animal-welfare, environmental (avoiding meat and dairy may be the single biggest way individuals can reduce their environmental impact) and health issues of conventional meat production. Producing meat without animals could help consumers align their values with their behavior. But will they want to eat it?
The first thing on consumers’ minds is likely to be what it is that they are actually eating. This has generated an intense debate about the framing and choice of words used.
One common name given to this kind of meat is “lab grown,” which sounds weird and unnatural and could lead to less interest from consumers. “Lab grown” suggests the use of large laboratories to make food, even though most foods are processed in large-scale facilities.
A Good Food Institute survey asked people to rate the appeal of different names for this kind of meat on a scale from 1 (“not at all appealing”) to 5 (“extremely appealing”). “Lab grown” scored a measly average of 1.74, only marginally better than “in vitro” at 1.71 and “test tube” at 1.60.
Another popular term is “cell based” meat, but since all meat is made of cells, “cell based” doesn’t actually differentiate the product. And the less frequently used “cultured meat” sounds like something served at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Advocates and industry are desperately searching for more appealing terms. But none are perfect. “Clean meat” came top in three consumer surveys as a positive term that focuses on the ethical and food safety benefits. But “clean meat” — which has a sense similar to “clean energy” — doesn’t tell the consumer anything about how it’s produced. None of the terms used so far seem to fit, and it is unclear which name will stick.
After the name, first impressions are critical. A luxury product launch could establish slaughter-free meat as high-quality and desirable in the public consciousness. This approach makes financial sense because the lowest cost estimate of slaughter-free meat to date is about $2,400 per pound. That’s $600 for a burger.
One good candidate for the first wave of products could be foie gras because liver cells are easy to grow, the texture is homogeneous and consumers are used to high prices. It is also one of the most loathed animal products because of the animal suffering associated with its production.
There are four main reasons people give for eating meat — the four N’s. It’s normal, natural (our ancestors ate it), necessary (a key component of human nutrition) and nice (it tastes good). Of these, normality is most important. As more people eat slaughter-free meat, it becomes more normal, which leads to more consumption, which leads to more normalization. The hardest part is creating the initial momentum and making sure the first product launches go smoothly. The next decade is crucial.
A positive sign has been the ongoing popularization of plant-based meat like the “bleeding” veggie burgers of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. This is likely to be one of the most important factors in consumer adoption. These foods are making it normal for people to see that the meat and protein in the center of the plate don’t have to come from animal farming.
The last big challenge will be perceptions about the industry as a whole. And in particular, whether it is driven by ethics — as is the case with industry leaders I have interviewed — or profits. This is a big part of what went wrong with genetically modified foods, which, when they made their consumer debut in the 1990s were perceived by many as a dangerous technology being forced on people by large, opaque megacorporations like Monsanto. That rough takeoff led to massive backlash from environmental and health activists as well as the general public.
In the case of slaughter-free meat, activists like vegans and environmentalists have so far been the biggest proponents of the technology. But that might not last. It may well get taken over by the same kinds of large corporations, leading to public backlash.
Meat giants like Tyson and Cargill have already invested in slaughter-free meat companies. While this could be seen as a negative step in terms of public perception, it could also be a positive indication, as it suggests that meat companies — at least the companies that are focused on processing and selling meat — could incubate this industry instead of fight it.
There is a long history of the meat industry attempting to influence consumer dietary habits. Consider the marketing power of what Quartz called “the U.S. meat industry’s wildly successful, 40-year crusade to keep its hold on the American diet,” influencing the USDA dietary guidelines to reject the plant-based recommendations made by scientists and health advocates. These public relations strategies could be leveled against the nascent slaughter-free meat industry, quashing the products before they even reach the market.
The fight for our dinner plates may come down to the political climate and signals sent to consumers from governments and companies. Are companies willing to invest in slaughter-free meat, and are governments willing to legislate against animal farming?
Jacy Reese is the author of “The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System,” to be published in November 2018.
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