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Cell-cultivated meat has an image problem

Even if cell-cultivated meat can match animal meat in taste and price, the sustainable and cruelty-free option still has a challenge to overcome: public perception.

Cell-cultivated meat has an image problem
[Source photo: d3sign/Getty Images]

Last week, the opinion survey website YouGov released the results of a recent poll asking more than 9,000 U.S. adults: If in the hypothetical future animal meat and “lab-grown meat alternatives” are “indistinguishable” in terms of taste, nutrition, and cost, which would they prefer to eat? Even given those qualifications, public interest doesn’t seem to budge—50% of respondents said they would still prefer regular animal meat.

While the survey didn’t get into respondents’ reasoning, it’s probably safe to say that most adults understand that meat is the product of killing a living being. Anyone with access to the internet has likely been exposed to footage of animals being neglected and abused in factory farm settings, and anyone who’s read any printed material in the past 20 years is probably at least vaguely aware of the impending threat of climate change.

Despite all of this, 60% of those polled also said they either definitely or probably wouldn’t even try cell-cultivated meat (the term the industry prefers over the survey’s lab-grown meat, the one that doesn’t rely on cruelty and is gradually making the planet less habitable.


Many of the innovators and entrepreneurs working in the cell-cultivated meat space have the utmost confidence in the project of making cruelty-free, environmentally friendly meat not only a reality but an inevitability. They speak with certainty about a future where slaughter-free meat is as affordable and tasty as the slaughtered kind, if not more so; of a point in the future when society will have simply progressed past the need for animal meat.

Speaking on the topic earlier this year, David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University, stated that he has “complete confidence that we’re going to get to where we need to go” and that “it’s all about scale.” Others say it’s “inevitable” or “just a matter of time.” And while I am grateful for their efforts and appreciate their good cheer, the reality is more complex, and I fear more grim. People just aren’t entirely logical, and we need to recognize that in order to set the industry up for success.

Granted, one online survey of self-reported answers responding to questions with the unappetizing moniker “lab-grown” may not accurately represent future human behavior. But others show a similar hesitance. And it’s important for us to remember that our own social circles aren’t the entire world, and what some leaders in the space may see as inevitable, others in the general public still see as repulsive.

Scaling up is going to be necessary, that’s for sure. Cell-cultivated meat companies will need to continue refining their technology to make production of their products more efficient and more affordable. But much like studies show with plant-based meat, price and accessibility are not the only factors that need our attention.


Part of me understands why many of those in the cell-cultivated meat space are so optimistic. On the surface, it’s reasonable to believe that given all other factors being equal—it tastes just as good as animal meat, it’s as cheap or cheaper, and it’s nutritionally equivalent if not better—everyone would take the option that’s not associated with animal cruelty, exploitative work, environmental destruction, and poor public health.

The problem is, there are a lot of emotional, cultural, experiential, and social factors that influence the way we eat, even when those forces are at odds with whatever might be in our best interest as individuals or as a society. Rather than ignoring all of that and functioning on the blind optimism that people’s reticence will disappear if cell-cultivated meat hits scale—a big if, mind you, exemplified by the closure of SCiFi Foods, a once promising cell-cultivated meat company—we need to address their concerns and misconceptions head on.

Perhaps ironically, those in the alt-protein space could afford to take a page from Big Ag’s book. It’s not an accident that so many people still think of eating meat all the time as healthy and nutritionally necessary, despite overconsumption of animal products being linked to cancer and heart disease.

Lots of people are aware that factory farms exist, but when they imagine where their chicken comes from, their mental image is more open fields than battery cages. This is, in large part, because the meat industry has a communications machine that’s mind-boggling and vaguely dystopian in its expansiveness.


The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, for instance, maintains a 24/7 digital command center for the express purpose of identifying beef-related discussions in news and media and responding as needed. If anyone in the public eye is saying anything about beef, good or bad, the NCBA is going to be the first to know—and its going to do whatever it can to get ahead of any negative stories.

In response to the rise of alt-meat, industrial animal agriculture representatives have already had some success in poisoning the well against alternatives by taking advantage of the public’s gaps in knowledge. Campaigns have tried to vilify plant-based meat, somewhat successfully, by pointing out the long ingredient lists and scientific-sounding components on the labels.

Of course, the “naturalness” or “healthiness” of a food is poorly represented by the number of ingredients it contains and, conversely, just because a package of meat technically contains only one ingredient—meat—doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other genuinely concerning substances at play, like the “food” and antibiotics consumed by the animals before their slaughter. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, factory-farmed meat is, in a sense, the most processed food on earth.) They are just not the kind of things that are required to be included on an ingredients list.


A number of alt-meat brands put out ads and press campaigns in response to all of this, and in some cases brands have tried to cater to the critics by making their products healthier by one metric or another (lower fat, lower sodium, etc.). But by doing this, they’re inevitably making a product that doesn’t taste quite as good, and thus alienating anyone who is eating for taste. They’re probably not making up for that loss by attracting new customers, either.

True “clean eaters” are a minority of people, and in any case, they aren’t going to be buying packaged burger patties, be they made from soy protein isolate or good old black beans. Much of the alt-meat industry is trying to play catch-up to the meat industry’s talking points, and as a result it continues to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one.

Meanwhile, the cattle industry is deftly working its political power. Thanks in part to successful lobbying efforts, the states of Florida and Alabama both recently passed legislation that bans the sale of cell-cultivated meat within their respective borders. These efforts are thinly veiled as “consumer protection,” when they’re veiled at all—Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida explicitly stated that the law’s purpose was to “save our beef.” Several other states have passed or are currently considering legislation that would stifle, if not outright choke, the cell-cultivated meat industry in those places.

At this rate, the cattle industry could use politicians to neutralize its competition before alt-meat even gets its shoes on. What will it take to get the alt-meat industry to unify and fight back?


What the cell-cultivated meat and other alt-meat sectors need to do is get ahead of the story. And unlike the cattle industry, they won’t even have to traffic in misinformation to do so—there are plenty of accurate and horrifying talking points they could use to help the public understand that factory-farmed meat isn’t “natural” or “healthy,” let alone sustainable or humane.

Consumer education is a process that can start now—and ought to, unless we want to continue letting Big Ag control the conversation and, more ominously, the law. The top priorities for cell-cultivated meat companies are, of course, developing a product that’s actually good and desirable to consumers, and making said product affordable by scaling up production.

But while the scientists tinker away, let’s make sure the media and communications teams have the resources they need to properly introduce the public to a new kind of food that could change the world for the better. That starts with accepting the truth: Cell-cultivated meat is far from inevitable.

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Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Kateman is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017). More