(In Vitro) Meat By Any Other Name
In vitro meat (IVM) is a new technology that produces animal meat for consumption from animal cells but doesn’t require a living animal to produce it. IVM – also referred to as “clean meat” – production, therefore, avoids most of the negative aspects of conventional meat production, such as animal suffering, animal slaughter, and environmental impacts, and may have greater health benefits compared to conventional meat.
However, because IVM is a new and unusual concept, many consumers are unaware of it or wary of the idea of it. Further complicating consumer acceptance of IVM is that no one name has been universally agreed upon for it. Several different names for the technology are already in common use, which can cause more confusion for the public and, in some cases, a rejection of the idea.
The researchers in this study set out to compile all of the names that have been commonly used to describe IVM, then categorize them and figure out which names encourage and discourage consumer acceptance of the concept. They did so by questioning survey participants on their opinion of IVM names using word associations, and then asking them how likely they are to purchase or eat IVM products.
For this experiment, they questioned 185 people aged 20 to 68 about their thoughts on terms used to describe IVM. The researchers separated the participants into four groups based on four descriptive yet unique terms that were chosen to describe IVM. The four names were “cultured meat”, “clean meat”, “lab-grown meat”, and “animal-free meat” (some terms that they didn’t use were “Frankenmeat”, “synthetic/artificial meat”, and “in vitro meat”).
Participants did not know what question was being studied. First, they were asked to write down four words in a word association exercise based on the IVM term for their group and then rank the four associated words on a 5-point scale from “Very Negative” to “Very Positive”. The only information they had about their assigned term up to this point was the term itself.
Once they had done this, all participants were given the same definition of IVM: “[X] is meat which is grown from cells taken from an animal who is not killed, rather than being taken from a slaughtered animal” (the [X] was replaced by each person’s assigned term). Having this definition, the participants answered 21 attitude questions and five behavioral intention questions to describe their opinions about IVM and say whether they intended to purchase or eat IVM products.
With the experiment concluded, the researchers tested and weighted the data to equalize the conditions. They then sorted the 338 unique word association responses into 24 categories, such as “artificial/unnatural”, “natural”, “not tasty”, “tasty”, “disgust”, “animal welfare”, “uncertainty/skepticism”, “threats to health”, and “environment.” The researchers tested the positivity/negativity rating of the words in each category for each assigned term to understand the opinions and ideas elicited by each IVM name (remember, at this part of the experiment the participants only knew their assigned term and didn’t know the definition of IVM yet).
The results from this phase of the experiment affirm that names alone significantly influence opinions and attitudes. Accordingly, some terms were perceived to be more positive than others.
Of all the words tested, the participants were most negative about the term “lab-grown meat”, associating it most frequently with artificiality/unnaturalness (15.7% of responses), disgust (13.8%), and unusualness/novelty (9.4%).
“Animal-free meat” was the most confusing name and elicited uncertainty/skepticism (6.3%); it also caused participants to associate it with vegetarianism/veganism (15.3%). The researchers suppose that this was a conflation with plant-based meat and therefore worry that this confusion may discourage omnivores from IVM products, even though they’re the intended consumers.
“Cultured meat” also caused confusion, as some respondents (8.6%) associated it with meat preparation terms like “salted” and “cured.” They also associated it with science (9.6%), which, although it’s not necessarily negative, has the risk of creating a science vs. nature dichotomy (5.3% of responses were negative, which the researchers state is relatively high).
Overall, “clean meat” had the most positive associations, such as healthiness/nutrition (15.7%), tastiness, cleanness, and naturalness (all 10.8%). Although “clean meat” did have some negative associations (one participant wrote “bleach”), it also evoked other favorable, albeit unrelated, qualities, like “organic”, “lean”, and “no antibiotics”.
After analyzing the word association results, the researchers then studied the data about participants’ attitudes and behavioral intentions towards IVM. Similar to the earlier results, “lab-grown meat” ranked at the bottom, while the other three terms had positive results here. Nonetheless, “clean meat” specifically had the largest difference with “lab-grown meat” in terms of behavioral intentions.
The researchers argue that these results show that there was a correlation between the initial associations and the attitudes and intentions for each term, even after the participants were given the same definition of IVM. They therefore assert that the initial associations people think of when they hear a name are an important determinant of peoples’ opinions. They relate this finding to social representations theory and the concept of anchoring, both of which posit that naming something helps people decipher and categorize a new or unfamiliar concept as positive or negative. Therefore, they use this evidence to conclude that a standardized name for IVM that evokes positive associations should be agreed upon before an alternative, potentially negative name catches on.
Nonetheless, the researchers remind us that many factors that were not studied in this experiment, such as product descriptions and appearance, as well as media coverage, are also likely to affect consumer opinions of IVM. Lastly, they also state that there is a need to study linguistic and cultural differences in relation to IVM names, since this experiment only studied names in English.
[Note: The Good Food Institute recently announced that they will be using the term “cultivated meat,” and published a detailed post explaining why. You can check it out here.]