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Clean Meat:
The Naming of Tissue-Engineered Meat
"Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed."
–Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Words matter.

Whether you are marketing a consumer product, a piece of legislation, or a personal belief, what you say doesn’t matter as much as what people hear and how it makes them feel. Different words used to describe the same thing can make people more or less interested.

Just ask conservative pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz, who coined the phrase "death tax," which political conservatives in the U.S. now use in place of the formerly common term "estate tax." A poll by NPR and Harvard University found that calling this tax a "death tax" instead of an "estate tax" increases public opposition to the tax by 10%—even when people are given the same details about what the tax is and how it works. Ten percent may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to tip the scales on legislation and many other things.

Or ask Lee Lantz. Lantz was a fish wholesaler who was having trouble getting customers to buy his "Patagonian Toothfish." So he decided to come up with an entirely new term for the fish: Chilean Seabass. Today, Chilean Seabass is a staple on upscale menus across the country, a feat that would never have been achieved without Lantz’s market-savvy name change.

There are hundreds of other examples, particularly in the world of food, where a change in name, terminology, or description led to a big difference in sales and consumer acceptance. Words are so important that there is an entire food marketing industry that works to understand what language (and images, ingredients, and so on) will make customers most likely to buy and enjoy a product.

What Words Work Best for Tissue-Engineered Meat?

Those of us who are advocates for tissue-engineered meat often cringe when we hear non-appetizing terms like "tissue-engineered" and "lab-grown" used to describe the product in media reports. We know that using phrases like these (or even worse, "frankenmeat," "test tube meat," and so on) will turn the public, the media, and investors off to the product before it even exists.

To try to correct that problem, some in the field began using the term "cultured meat" instead. "Cultured" seems likely to be better than earlier terms. To be a "cultured" person is a good thing. And who doesn’t love a good cultured yogurt?

But while it is probably better than those clunky scientific terms, no research had yet been done to examine whether "cultured" is the best term to use. Perhaps there are other terms that will make the product sound more appetizing and appealing to the public and thereby make people more likely to desire it, buy it, speak favorably of it, and invest in it.

To help find out, The Good Food Institute recently carried out a set of large-scale consumer studies to determine which term for tissue-engineered meat products would make the public most receptive to them.

The research involved two experimental surveys with more than 4,300 total participants. Participants were recruited from the U.S. and Canada via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The first survey tested different terms for tissue-engineered beef products, and the second tested terms for tissue-engineered chicken products. The results of the surveys were combined to see the best term for tissue-engineered meat as a whole.

Prior to conducting the surveys, leading players from the research, advocacy, corporate, and investor sides of the tissue-engineered meat world (including Mark Post, New Harvest, and Memphis Meats) were contacted and asked to submit suggested terms for the study. Submissions were combined and the five most frequently suggested terms were used in the surveys: "cultured," "pure," "clean," "safe," and "meat 2.0."

Methodology

The surveys attempted to mimic the real decision space that people face when deciding which meat products to buy. Most people care a lot about price, type of product, and increasingly, humane standards. Therefore, we showed participants two fictional products and randomly varied the price, product type, and production method (conventional, humane, or tissue-engineered). We then asked participants to rate how likely they would be to buy each product and to select which product they would prefer to purchase.

For each survey, participants were first randomly assigned only one of five terms—"cultured," "pure," "clean," "safe," or "meat 2.0"—to see for the duration of the survey. Next, each participant was shown a newspaper article that described tissue-engineered meat and termed it using his or her assigned term. The articles were identical except for the terms.

After reading their articles, participants were shown two products, each with a unique and randomly assigned price, product type, and production method. See the Appendix for all of the available attributes for the beef and chicken surveys. After participants saw the products, we asked them to rate on a 1–7 scale the likelihood that they would purchase each product and to indicate which product they would prefer to purchase. Each participant made eight pairwise comparisons. See the Appendix for an example newspaper article and the questions that participants were asked.

To analyze the data, we combined the data from the chicken and beef surveys.

And the Winner Is...

First, we looked at how the different terms for tissue-engineered products affected people’s willingness to purchase them.

Using "safe" or "clean" made the public significantly more interested in buying the product than using "pure," "cultured," or "meat 2.0." The terms "clean" and "safe" did not produce significantly different results.

Next, we looked at how likely participants were to buy products by term on a scale of 1–7. We found that the likelihood of purchasing products termed "safe" was highest by a significant margin. "Safe" products were rated an average of 4.26, compared to "clean" with an average of 4.09, and "meat 2.0"—the lowest—with an average of 3.63.

How Did the Chicken and Beef Surveys Differ on "Safe" and "Clean"?

Although our main analysis combined the chicken and beef surveys, it is useful to see whether there were any key differences between meats for the most popular terms.

For beef, "clean" did slightly better than "safe." Participants were more likely to select "clean" products when they were an option and rated them highest on the likelihood to purchase scale. However, the term "clean" did not significantly differ from "safe" on either of these measures.

For chicken, "safe" did slightly better than "clean." Participants were more likely to select "safe" products when they were an option and rated them highest on the likelihood to purchase scale. The difference between "safe" and "clean" was significant on the likelihood to purchase scale but not on the selection question.

Since "safe" did significantly better than any other term for chicken on the likelihood to purchase scale, it pulled ahead as the best overall term in the combined analysis.

Conclusion

A name says a lot. A single word has the power to affect how someone feels, thinks, and acts, and can significantly alter how people perceive a product. These large experimental surveys make clear that the public is significantly more interested in purchasing and eating tissue-engineered products if they are called "safe meat" or "clean meat" than if they are called "cultured meat," "pure meat," or "meat 2.0."

Although "safe meat" and "clean meat" performed similarly, use of "safe meat" raises some issues that use of "clean meat" does not. For example, cultured meat will still lack complex carbohydrates and fiber, and it will still present most or all of the inherent health problems of meat (see The China Study, Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease, et al.). However, studies consistently find high levels of harmful bacteria in most conventionally produced meat, so the cleanliness advantage of cultured meat cannot be reasonably disputed. Thus, we encourage those in the tissue-engineered meat field to use "clean meat" as the standard conversational term for tissue-engineered meat; for example, "clean meat" can be used to refer to tissue-engineered meat in press releases and public speeches and on product packaging. These large-scale public surveys carried out by The Good Food Institute suggest that the more the public hears the term "clean meat" instead of "cultured meat" or other terms, the more likely it will be to support and buy tissue-engineered meat.

Just as animal advocates have coordinated to make "factory farm" and "ag-gag" moderately common in media reporting and standard usage in self-produced articles, videos, and communications, and just as conservatives have coordinated to make "death tax" and "Obamacare" moderately common in media reporting, those of us who want tissue-engineered meat to succeed should coordinate and use the term "clean meat" as the conversational term for tissue-engineered meat.

Our goal is not to express what is scientifically accurate, but to elicit the most public support for the product. Of course, we will need to continue to explain the meaning of "clean meat," as we do the meanings of "ag-gag," "death tax," and similar terms, and also the science behind it (i.e., that it involves the proliferation of animal cells in a controlled factory environment). However, our goal is for the general public to think of and call the product "clean meat" as opposed to something off-putting.

The more we tissue engineering supporters use "clean meat" to refer to the product in press releases, speeches, websites, product packaging, and other public communications, the more likely we will be to overcome the early but critical hurdle of generating public support for a novel product.

Appendix

All available attributes for the beef and chicken surveys.
Attributes Values
Production method
(note: each participant was shown only one of the cultured terms)
Pure/Clean/Safe/Cultured/Meat 2.0
Conventional meat
Humane meat
Product type Beef Chicken
Burger
Meatball
Hotdog
Ground beef
Chicken finger
Chicken nugget
Ground chicken
Chicken patty
Price $2.75/pound
$4.50/pound
$6.75/pound
$9.00/pound
$1.50/pound
$2.50/pound
$3.75/pound
$5.00/pound

Additional Documents

Raw Data