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“Lab-Grown Meat” – The Stories Around What We Eat

The lab-grown meat industry has come up a with new campaign to market their product as Clean Meat. (HT @HoneyBeeGeek)

It got me thinking about the way the stories we hear about how our food is produced influences what we choose to buy (and eat).

An easy example first, free range eggs.

Pictures of battery hens in appalling factory-farm conditions have convinced some people to change their buying habits. We did.

Likewise pork, after pictures of sow stalls and pigs locked away from sun and the earth were published by activists.

The choice being made is an ethical one.

There are others who avoid animal products for environmental reasons – the impact of large-scale farming on the environment is generally bad.

A third group will avoid animal products for health reasons.

If you are not in one of these three groups, why would you change? Why do people eat meat anyway? Is it for nutrition? Or taste? A mix? What is the job to be done?

Stories about lab-grown meat starting hitting the press after the first burger using the product was publicly eaten in 2013.

For a scientist, the concept of anything lab-grown is probably pretty exciting, but for the general public I suspect the opposite is the case, and that this new campaign is an acknowledgment of that. When I hear ‘lab-grown’ I think of petri dishes with bacteria from swabs growing on them. Yuk.

Try the following thought exercise.  Imagine that you know nothing about lab-grown meat. Someone comes to you and asks if you’d like to try a new plant-based burger patty that tastes just like meat. You’d probably give it a shot, right?

Now, let’s say you are told just a little about how the patty is produced – the process involves creating a natural culture (no genetic engineering) and growing the product in a sterile environment. Still keen?

OK, how about you’ve just read an article where it explains that the science of cultured meat is based on what is known in biotechnology circles as tissue engineering, and that the product is made by culturing bovine stem cells? A burger still, anyone?

Try that on your friends.

Because this is a new development it is getting a lot of press, and the public will be well-informed (or misinformed) by the time commercial sales start. Existing food products do not often get this scrutiny. For example, look up how margarine is made and read this Guardian article on how our food is engineered.

I think calling this new product Clean Meat is a misstep. Is regular meat dirty? Most people wouldn’t say so. Perhaps they read stories about methane emissions, or run-off into our waterways, but for most people there is not a direct connection (in their minds) with the meat they buy from the butcher.

I get that they want to riff off clean energy, in that it “…immediately communicates important aspects of the technology…”. If you look at the environmental costs of solar cell production or battery tech, you might not think it was so clean though.

It’s a conundrum. Do you compare yourself to the conventional (and powerful) meat industry, one that makes ‘natural’ products, or do you create a completely new class of product? I certainly don’t have the answer.

Marketing is all about positioning a product in people’s minds, and that is done by controlling the message and the information people have about a product. The horse may have already bolted on this one, which is a shame because once market prejudice takes over investors can quickly lose interest and promising technology is abandoned.

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