Would You Eat Cultured Meat?
Factory farming creates a host of problems from animal cruelty to environmental degradation. Cultured meat may offer a solution. Also known as clean, cell-based, or cultivated meat, cultured meat is produced by extracting cells from an animal and growing them in nutrient media in a lab. Companies around the world are currently racing to create lab-grown versions of meat and seafood. The process to manufacture a hamburger or chicken nugget is complex and expensive, and not yet commercially viable. But once clean meat does hit restaurant menus and grocery store shelves, will consumers buy it?
So far, public opinion about cultured meat is mixed. In prior research, about two-thirds of respondents indicated they are willing to try it. In the U.S. and Europe, those on the political left, males, younger people, urbanites, and those with higher levels of education show the greatest acceptance of this novel product. Yet psychological traits also play a role. People with strong beliefs in conspiracy theories (conspiratorial ideation), or who are easily disgusted (disgust sensitivity), wary of new foods, or heavily attached to meat report more negative views of clean meat. Other barriers to cultured meat acceptance include concerns about health, safety, and nutrition along with the effects on traditional farming jobs. But eclipsing all these issues is the perception that meat grown in a lab is unnatural.
People respond to their environment with both analytic (thinking) and intuitive (feeling) approaches. Analytic processing is conscious, slow, evidence-based, and requires effort. Intuitive or experiential reasoning is unconscious, fast, highly influenced by emotions and colored by images, associations, and metaphors. Researchers in this study sought to learn which of these thought processes had more influence on the view of cultured meat as unnatural. In December 2019, they administered an online survey to 862 U.S. adults using the Qualtrics platform. Participants responded to questionnaires assessing conspiratorial ideation, disgust sensitivity, and beliefs about cultured meat and other technologies. Demographic information collected included gender, education, political leaning, income, and meat consumption.
Analysis of the results showed that higher scores on conspiratorial ideation and disgust sensitivity correlated with a perception of cultured meat as unnatural. Oddly, grinding the meat up for patties, rather than activities such as growing the cells in a nutrient medium, was rated as the least natural part of the production process. And the more unnatural that respondents said cultured meat was, the more negative their feelings towards it. Overall, the researchers concluded that perceptions of unnaturalness weren’t generally governed by analytic reasoning. Instead, emotions such as disgust and fear at the thought of eating cultured meat seem to feed these beliefs.
The outcomes of this study are important both to marketers of cultured meat as well as animal advocates. While the study authors are careful to point out that their evidence is circumstantial and correlational, their conclusions are nonetheless significant. They suggest that campaigns that appeal primarily to analytic processes, such as education, may not be effective. People who respond to cultured meat as unnatural based on feelings of mistrust or disgust may do so on an emotional level that is outside reason. No amount of rational explanation can reach them. Approaches that target these emotional pathways may be more successful at encouraging reluctant consumers to give cultured meat a try.