The Naturalness Concern: An Upcoming Study About Clean Meat
In 2013, Mark Post introduced the world to clean meat when he ate the first cultured hamburger on live television. The future of meat consumption abruptly seemed to shift. It suddenly seemed possible that one day, even if people still eat meat, the idea of killing animals for food may be inconceivable.
If we want to live in that world (and we do!), we have to get public perception on our side. Early studies show that some of the biggest concerns consumers have when they hear about clean meat are about safety, taste, cost, and… the “ick” factor (Goodwin & Shoulders, 2013; Laestadius & Caldwell, 2015; Verbeke et al., 2015). The first three will be addressed largely by manufacturers and regulators, but the ick factor is something that advocates and researchers can talk about now. It refers to a reaction by some consumers and media sources who emphasize the “unnaturalness” of clean meat and find it disgusting.
Disgust is a tricky nut to crack. A wealth of evidence suggests that it evolved in humans as a protective reaction, keeping us away from things that might make us sick (Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2009). Unfortunately, new and different things sometimes trigger that reaction, even when it doesn’t make sense. Trying to work around something so ingrained is not easy. Nevertheless, researchers all over the world are already working on the problem and finding solutions (as reviewed by Bryant & Barnett, 2018a).
Initial impressions are important and now is the time to act: Clean meat products haven’t hit the market yet and the majority of consumers don’t yet know it exists. In a pilot study we conducted in November, 64% of participants said they were not at all familiar with clean meat before we described it to them—which means it’s the perfect time for advocates to make the case for clean meat!
One recent study showed the potential for negative reactions from some people to spread to others (MacDonald & Vivalt, 2017), so it is crucial to get accurate, positive information directly to consumers before the rumor mill gets to them. We will never convince everyone, of course, but the more advocates and manufacturers can tailor their initial messaging to reduce naturalness concerns, the better.
One of the first steps was determining what to call this product. Several names were and are used interchangeably (most notably, cultured meat and clean meat), and the media came up with a few unflattering ones as well. However, in North America, at least, most groups are using clean meat, because preliminary studies suggested that it was the label with the most positive and natural associations (Animal Charity Evaluators, 2017; Bryant & Barnett, 2018b; Good Food Institute, 2016).
Research is now moving beyond the name, looking at how the product is described to consumers who may not yet have encountered it. One recent randomized controlled trial specifically tried to combat perceptions of unnaturalness, as we do in our upcoming study. Bobbie MacDonald and Eva Vivalt (2017) found that they could increase consumer acceptance of clean meat by encouraging participants to embrace the idea that unnaturalness can sometimes be good (think medicine!). Their study provides inspiring evidence that overcoming the ick factor is possible.
Faunalytics’ Upcoming Randomized Controlled Trial
Faunalytics, in partnership with the Good Food Institute and funded by the Animal Charity Evaluators research fund, is conducting an independent study to contribute to the growing literature on clean meat acceptance. As outlined above, we think its “unnatural” reputation is one of the most important barriers to address, so this study tests several potential messaging strategies.
Participants will be randomly assigned to one of four conditions, as shown in Figure 1 below. All of them describe what clean meat is (real meat, grown from animal cells without the need to raise and slaughter farm animals), then describe it in one of four ways: As a natural process similar to how cells grow normally; as better than the unnatural way in which conventional meat is produced; as unnatural, but in a beneficial way; or using current messaging, with benefits for animals, the environment, and health.
Participants will then answer questions related to our outcome measures. Key measures include self-rated willingness to try clean meat and a “willingness to pay” measure that has them provide the price they would be willing to pay for a few specific clean meat products. Similarly, they will also be asked about their willingness to buy clean meat regularly and willingness to replace conventional meat or plant-based substitutes with clean meat. These additional questions will be particularly important in the long run, but are much harder to answer accurately without having tried the product. Finally, we are also interested in participants’ emotional reactions to clean meat (especially disgust) and their beliefs about it (whether it is safe, healthy, etc.).
For all of these outcome measures, we will be looking for differences between the four conditions. In short, is there a particular way of describing clean meat that makes people more positive about it and willing to eat it?
We pilot tested our messages and measures in November. The main study, with 1,100 participants, is running now! No matter how it turns out, it will provide valuable information to advocates and marketers about consumer acceptance of clean meat. We are excited to share the findings with you once they are available!
In the meantime, full details of the study design, instrument, and analysis plan were pre-registered on the Open Science Framework. If you have any questions that aren’t covered by those documents, please contact Faunalytics’ research director, Jo Anderson.
Animal Charity Evaluators (2017). “Clean” meat or “cultured” meat: A randomized trial evaluating the impact on self-reported purchasing preferences.
Bryant, C., & Barnett, J. (2018a). Consumer acceptance of cultured meat: A review. (Manuscript submitted for publication.)
Bryant, C., & Barnett, J. (2018b). What’s in a name? Consumer perceptions of cultured meat under different names. (Manuscript in preparation.)
The Good Food Institute (2016). Clean Meat: The Naming of Tissue-Engineered Meat.
Goodwin, J. N., & Shoulders, C. W. (2013). The future of meat: A qualitative analysis of cultured meat media coverage.
Laestadius, L. I., & Caldwell, M. A. (2015). Is the future of meat palatable? Perceptions of in vitro meat as evidenced by online news comments.
MacDonald, E., & Vivalt, E. (2017). Effective strategies for overcoming the naturalness heuristic: Experimental evidence on consumer acceptance of “clean meat.”
Oaten, M. Stevenson, R. J., & Case, T. I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism.
Verbeke, W., Marcu, A., Rutsaert, P., Gaspar, R., Seibt, B., Fletcher, D., & Barnett, J. (2015). ‘Would you eat cultured meat?’: Consumers’ reactions and attitude formation in Belgium, Portugal and the United Kingdom.