What should we call meat, poultry, and seafood made directly from the cells of animals? - Cell-cultured tops the list.

Meat, poultry, and seafood products made directly from the cells of animals are beginning to enter the marketplace. But what should they be called on a food label?
What should we call meat, poultry, and seafood made directly from the cells of animals? - Cell-cultured tops the list.

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Meat, poultry, and seafood products produced through the in vitro cultivation of animal cells are beginning to enter the marketplace. In December 2020, the first “chicken nugget” product made using cell-cultured meat received regulatory approval for sale in Singapore. In November 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) completed its first pre-market consultation for a human food product made using cultured chicken cells and completed a second in March 2023. In both cases, the FDA issued a statement that it had “no further questions at this time about the firm’s safety conclusion.” In June 2023, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued grants of inspection to several companies, bringing their cell-cultured chicken products closer to being sold in the U.S. Yet, there is still no consensus on what to call them.

Our task was to test proposed names against objective criteria to find a single term that could be used to label cell-cultured meat, poultry, and seafood products. Consistent use of that term across products could improve consumer awareness and understanding, improve transparency in the marketplace, and facilitate international trade and unified regulatory oversight.

What you call a product strongly influences consumer perceptions of it. Choosing the right name for foods produced through new technologies is particularly important, as evidenced by consumer misperceptions of foods labeled as “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” “bioengineered,” and “irradiated.”

Producers of both cell-cultured and conventional meat products, regulators, consumer organizations, and animal-rights advocates have all recommended terms likely to influence consumer perceptions. Skeptics, traditional meat producers, and some consumer organizations favor “lab-grown,” “synthetic,” “artificial” and “fake meat,” to clearly distinguish these novel products from conventional meat. Unsurprisingly, producers of cell-cultured products have rejected these terms as scientifically inaccurate and as portraying their foods as unnatural and unappetizing.

Advocates of reducing animal agriculture have proposed the names “slaughter-free,” “cruelty-free,” “animal-free” and “clean meat.” But traditional meat producers have rejected these as pejorative to conventional products. The more appealing term “cultivated,” has been proposed, but has not been embraced by manufacturers. Instead, producers would prefer to call their foods “cell-based,” “cell-cultured,” or “cultured,” arguing that they are scientifically accurate and can differentiate their products from conventional meat without denigrating either.

While choosing the right name is critical, it isn’t simply a matter of marketing. Both FDA regulations (21CFR101.3) and USDA regulations for meat (9CFR317.2) and poultry products (9CFR381.117) require “common or usual names” on food labels to help consumers understand what they are buying. These names must be “truthful and not misleading,” and convey “the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties or ingredients” (21CFR102.5), and what distinguishes it from other foods. Cell-cultured products are intended to look, cook, and taste the same, and to have the same nutritional qualities as conventional meat, poultry, and seafood, so what distinguishes them from other foods is how they are produced.

Yet, most Americans are unfamiliar with even the idea of producing foods directly from the cells of animals, rather than raising (or catching) them and harvesting them. The first encounter consumers are likely to have with these products will be in a restaurant or in a grocery store. So, choosing the right name isn’t just matching the best term to a familiar product or concept. Instead, it must convey significant new information to uninformed consumers, and it must do so without additional explanatory text.

Our study used an experimental design to test potential names, balancing both relevant regulatory requirements and the need for consumer acceptance necessary for producers to sell their products. We used two regulatory criteria. Criterion A is that the term should enable consumers to distinguish the novel products from conventionally produced products. For seafood, consumers should recognize that the novel products are neither wild-caught nor farm-raised. For beef, consumers should recognize that the novel products are neither derived from grass-fed nor conventional grain fed cattle. For chicken, it should distinguish the novel products from those that come from free-range chickens and those raised indoors. Because cell-cultured products will contain the same allergenic proteins as those in their conventional counterparts, Criterion B is that the term communicate that consumers who may be allergic to those proteins should not eat them.

We used three marketing/consumer perception criteria. Criterion C is that a name should not disparage cell-cultured products, eliminating terms such as “lab-grown,” synthetic,” “artificial,” and “fake.” Similarly, the name should not disparage conventional products, ruling out terms such as “clean,” “slaughter free,” and “cruelty-free.” Criterion D is that the term should not elicit consumer perceptions that the cell-based products are unsafe, unhealthy, or less than nutritious. Finally, a common or usual name must also satisfy the desire of consumers for transparency in food labeling. Criterion E is that consumers endorse the name as appropriate to identify the product.

We tested the terms “Cultured,” “Cultivated,” “Cell-Cultured,” “Cell-Cultivated,” “Cell-Based” and a control using the five criteria. A nationally representative sample of 4385 American consumers (18+) participated in an online experiment. Each saw a single name (or the control) shown on the label of a single product: packages of frozen Beef Filets, Beef Burgers, Chicken Breasts, Chicken Burgers, Atlantic Salmon Fillets, and Salmon Burgers, created for the experiment.

The results showed that the terms “Cultured” and “Cultivated” failed to adequately differentiate the novel products from conventional “Wild-Caught and Farm-Raised” salmon products. “Cultivated” also failed to differentiate the novel products from “Grass-Fed” Beef Filets. Therefore, the terms “Cultured” and “Cultivated” may be deemed by regulators as misleading to consumers. In contrast, “Cell-Cultured,” “Cell-Cultivated,” and “Cell-Based” each successfully signaled to consumers that the novel products were different from conventional products, and they appropriately signaled allergenicity, meeting the two key regulatory criteria.

“Cell-Cultured,” “Cell-Cultivated,” and “Cell-Based” were not significantly different on most of the marketing/consumer perception measures. However, the overall pattern of responses suggests that the term “Cell-Cultured” may have slightly better consumer acceptance. Overall, the participants were as interested in tasting and purchasing “Cell-Cultured” products, ordering them in a restaurant, and as likely to serve them to guests as they were the conventional control products.

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Humanities and Social Sciences > Business and Management > Marketing
Regulation and Industrial Policy
Humanities and Social Sciences > Economics > Public Economics > Regulation and Industrial Policy
Consumer Behavior
Humanities and Social Sciences > Business and Management > Marketing > Consumer Behavior
Food Science
Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Food Science

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