Bruce Friedrich • September 13 2019

Cultivated meat: Why GFI is embracing new language

It is possible to be science-forward and transparent while staying rooted in familiar concepts and appealing language. Mattson worked pro bono with GFI over the past nine months to explore, test, and hone communication materials and to find a name for meat produced through cellular agriculture.

The common term for avocado in the early 20th century was “alligator pear.” Not so yummy.

“Avocado,” it turns out, is a word California’s farmers chose and deliberately advocated for.

The California Avocado Growers’ Exchange, established in 1924, made their case in a 1927 public statement: “That the avocado, an exalted member of the laurel family should be called an alligator pear, is beyond understanding.” As The New York Times reported, “The announcement says that the term ‘alligator pears’ is ruining the avocado business.”

Ultimately, the farmers prevailed, with the name and the market. American avocado consumption increased by nearly six-fold between 1985 and 2018. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, avocado enthusiasm is a cultural phenomenon.

Alligator pear on heated bread—you’d be hard-pressed to find that on a menu. Avocado toast, on the other hand—well, that’s the breakfast that transfixed the internet.

What’s the point?

The point is that words matter, especially when it comes to food. Not only must food taste, look, and smell delicious, but the name needs to be appealing too. Nowhere is this discussion more salient than in the nascent industry of cellular agriculture.

As innovators around the world have demonstrated, it is possible to provide the same meat-centric dishes that people love by cultivating meat directly from animal cells. This method will use far less land and water. It will help curb the rising antimicrobial resistance driven by modern industrial animal agriculture. It will help us feed 10 billion people on a planet with finite, increasingly depleted resources.

But only if consumers embrace it.

Consumer acceptance starts long before someone walks into a grocery store or sits down to a meal at their local diner. It starts in the headlines, in the debates on social media, and in the conversations people have with their friends. What people call this category and how they talk about the production are critical paving stones on the path to consumer acceptance.

The industry has been using a wide range of terms: “cell-based,” “cultured,” “clean,” and “slaughter-free.” Meanwhile, those who’d prefer to double down on the status quo are pushing terms like “lab-grown.” (Not so yummy.)

Names like “lab-grown” are designed to drive clicks, but they are not accurate: at production scale, cellular agriculture will not happen in a lab.

We have a golden—and short—opportunity to proactively inform public opinion about this game-changing method of meat production. This is the time to align on an effective message and a compelling category name.

Evidence-based message design

That’s why the Good Food Institute has been conducting on-going consumer research to determine the best language to help people understand how this process works, what it offers them as individuals, and what it makes possible for our food system.

We’re thrilled to share the results of a nine-month project we embarked on with Mattson, North America’s most successful independent food and beverage innovation firm. We extend our thanks to Memphis Meats, who served as a technical advisor on the project.

Our thesis was that it is possible to be science-forward and transparent while staying rooted in familiar concepts and appealing language. Mattson worked pro bono with GFI over the past nine months to explore, test, and hone communication materials and to find a name.

Through this work, we developed three different tools:

In the sections below, we’ll summarize our research process, present the science communication tools we developed, and explain what our findings mean for GFI moving forward.

The narrative and graphic analogy

Before beginning any nomenclature work, we started developing a narrative and visual framework to introduce this new form of meat production to the lay public.

The creative process

We began with four different broad narratives and all stakeholders unanimously aligned on the most science-forward: “Embracing the Science of Nature.” The science-forward nature of this narrative was critical because the thrust of the project was to explain the process and lead with transparency.

The narrative plainly explains the process of producing meat directly from the cells of an animal and draws a parallel to the common practice of growing plants in greenhouses:

In conventional animal farming, cell growth occurs in an animal. But we can grow the same cells in what is known as a cultivator.
The cultivator facilitates the same biological process that happens inside an animal by providing warmth and the basic elements needed to build muscle: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Cultivating meat is similar to the way we help plant cuttings to take root in a greenhouse, which provides warmth, fertile soil, water, and nutrients.

We created the graphic analogy to illustrate this parallel.

Narrative and graphic testing

We tested the narrative and the graphic (as well as names) with consumers in four focus groups and two rounds of quantitative research with 344 participants matched to the U.S. population by age and gender.

People wanted straightforward explanations and information about product taste, cost, and safety. We took out terms like “mother nature” and “wholesome,” which scanned as marketing language for many people. With each round of testing and feedback, we refined the narrative and the graphic. The current version of the narrative and the graphic can be viewed here.

The nomenclature

Once we’d aligned on the basics of the narrative and graphic, we went back to the drawing board on names. We had solicited suggestions from every company in this space of which we were aware, as well as other stakeholders, in our 2018 study. At the beginning of 2019, Mattson, GFI, and Memphis Meats ideated and compiled a list of over 400 names. Some were completely new (“nanopastured” ) and others were familiar suggestions (“cell-based,” “cultured” ).

“Cultivated” was also on this list. The word “cultivator” is a term many companies use to refer to the bioreactors where cellular agriculture takes place. The adjective “cultivated” proceeds naturally from this.

The ideal name would meet these criteria of neutrality and descriptiveness/differentiation (i.e., understandability) while optimizing for consumer appeal.

This means it would:

  • Enable existing meat industry stakeholders to join the conversation
  • Have the potential to be applicable in a regulatory context
  • Resonate with consumers and empower them to make informed decisions about their meat options

Neutrality and understandability are necessary but not sufficient. Appeal is critical. Without consumers, there is no market. Without a market, we cannot transition to a more sustainable, healthy, and just food system.

Nomenclature testing

We whittled this list down by selecting for neutrality and understandability for preliminary testing. Based on these results, we condensed the list for final testing down to the four names which met the understandability criteria: “cell-based meat,” “cell-cultured meat,” “cultured meat,” and “cultivated meat.”

The take-aways from our final testing are summarized according to the criteria below:

Neutrality: We did not include any names that did not meet a minimum standard of neutrality. For this reason, “clean” and “slaughter-free” were not included in our consumer testing.

Understandability: We selected terms that preliminary testing indicated were sufficiently descriptive and differentiating. We re-tested this in our focus groups and online surveys. Every term met this standard. “Cell-cultured” was rated as most descriptive, followed by “cell-based,” “cultivated,” and then “cultured.” Notably, this dynamic was largely reversed for appeal.

Appeal: In focus groups, participants assessed each name with regard to its overall fit with the multiple criteria. “Cultivated” stood out as the most favored. The plurality of participants selected it as their favorite, and even those who selected another term still reacted positively to “cultivated.” Responses were mixed for “cell-based” and “cultured” and were neutral to negative for “cell-cultured.” Our larger online surveys of 344 general population respondents reproduced this pattern.

Benefits and challenges analysis

Analyzing our results within the broader industry context, we created a matrix of benefits and challenges for each of these terms. Briefly summarized:

Cultured: This term is already widely in use. It garnered a mixed reaction from focus group participants. This term was rated more appealing than “cell-based” and “cell-cultured” but less appealing than “cultivated.” However, “cultured” also already has a meaning in the context of seafood: “cultured fish” is associated with aquaculture. Further, many interpret “cultured” to mean fermented or aged, like yogurt or salami (yup, salami is fermented meat).

Cell-based: This term is also already widely in use. It was rated more highly descriptive and differentiating than “cultured” or “cultivated.” However, “cell-based” faces some technical hurdles with regard to differentiation, as all meat (including both conventional and plant-based meat) is also cell-based. Additionally, this term evoked unnaturalness sentiments from focus group participants. Consumers found it less appealing than “cultured” or “cultivated.”

Cell-cultured: This technical term has not been used widely. Although this term was rated the most descriptive and differentiating, it also had the least appeal. Focus group participants found it unappetizing and stated unnaturalness concerns.

Cultivated: This term is less well known than “cultured” or “cell-based” but the concepts surrounding “cultivated meat” (“cultivating meat,” “meat cultivators,” etc.) are already widely in use. Though less so than the others, it was sufficiently descriptive and differentiating—this was a minimum requirement for being considered in the final testing. And it was the standout option for consumer appeal. In focus groups, nearly every participant responded positively to it, and the plurality selected it as their top choice.

The results convinced us that “cultivated meat” was a term worth taking to the companies, investors, and other stakeholders in this space. (We’ll start road testing it in the paragraphs below.)

Stakeholders speak

Mattson president and chief innovation officer Barb Stuckey presented the work to industry stakeholders in two sessions at the Good Food Conference: first to representatives from 18 cultivated meat companies as well as investors and other stakeholders, and then to a lunchtime crowd of about 100 stakeholders who specifically wanted to hear about and discuss this consumer communications research.

In her words, “The term ‘cultivate’ really works. A cultivator is where the cells are grown; cultivation is the process of allowing the cells to multiply; and cultivated can describe the final product, which is meat, poultry, or seafood.”

Cultivated meat terminology, cultivate, cultivator, cultivation, cultivated

The startup Mission Barns already deploys the adaptable nature of this language in the explanation of cellular agriculture on their website (“our cultivation process” ).

New Crop Capital and Stray Dog Capital, the two most active investors in the cultivated meat industry, participated in Stuckey’s session at the Good Food Conference and have adopted this terminology.

In the final panel discussion at the conference, startup founders, including representatives from the recently-formed Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation, discussed the merits of different names.

This is particularly important because this group of five companies was unable to settle on a name, with some of them preferring cultured and others cell-based. Already, at least two of them prefer “cultivated” to either of those options.

“I like ‘cultivated meat’ because it’s generic, like ‘organic.’ It can cover a very complex process that we have to be transparent about,” Niya Gupta, CEO of Fork & Goode, explained to the panel audience.

“GFI has done a wonderful job of doing some research around [the] term ‘cultivated,’ which I think I slightly prefer to ‘cultured,’” said Josh Tetrick, CEO of JUST, a company working on cultivated chicken.

He continued, “We’re trying to appeal to billions of consumers out there who are not thinking about tissue engineering and media. They’re just trying to enjoy a good dinner with their family, and it’s got to be named something that is honest about the process and also resonates with them.”

In discussing some of the biggest challenges to the nascent industry, Michael Kleindl, Blue Horizon Ventures co-founder and managing partner, pointed out, “It’s not only about regulation…it’s a lot about communication and proactive communication to prepare the future consumer.” He continued, “There’s a good initiative already underway by GFI…getting the right messaging out there early on will be important.”

After the conference, Jess Krieger, a cultivated meat scientist at Kent State University, said, “There is understandably a lot of confusion in the media and [among] general consumers about what cellular agriculture is and how it is different from plant-based meats. If we, as an industry, want to help people understand what we do, it’s essential that we are clear ourselves—and this starts with using consistent terminology.”

She continued, “‘Cultivated’ meat conjures images of agriculture and natural processes, is biologically correct, and isn’t used by any major food type—it’s a great name for us to stand behind as an industry.”

What’s next?

The term “cultivator” is in use across the industry. “Cultivated meat” and “cultivating meat” are already being used in some popular media and scientific literature. The results of our research indicate that “cultivated meat” is the best fit for neutrality, understandability, and appeal. The response we’ve seen from industry stakeholders indicates that this term is a viable solution to the nomenclature challenge.

Taken together, we are persuaded that “cultivated meat” is the optimal name for this space. We’re thrilled to adopt this term and will begin using it right…now.

The narrative, graphic analogy, and nomenclature analysis were developed to support the entire cultivated meat industry. We believe this framework will help the public understand how meat cultivation is different (fewer external costs) and how cultivated meat is the same (just meat). We invite everyone to draw from this work as it is useful to them, and we hope others will begin to use the cultivation language.

It’s more urgent than ever to communicate effectively with the public as this game-changing form of meat production becomes a market reality.

This is the moment to envision what the menus of 2050 could say. They won’t list alligator pears. Will they feature cultivated chicken? The cultivated meat industry is still so young. But the future of the industry—if people embrace it—is boundless.

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