Can lab-grown meat convert the average consumer?

Looking at lab-grown meat with cold rational logic, it is the exact same end product as meat from an animal. Starter cells from an animal that have multiplied and grown into muscle and fat tissue. As discussed in previous blogs, there are strong arguments to claim that it is, in fact, healthier and made in cleaner more ethical conditions than mass-produced factory meat. Despite this, the phrase ‘lab-grown’ without doubt conjures up bad images for some people.

Public reception is going to be a huge factor in the success of lab-grown meat. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, there is a worrying trend of distrust towards sources of scientific authority. This is evidenced perfectly by the anti-vaccination and flat earth movements. Facts are useless against those who won’t listen and simply retreat into echo chambers of pseudo-science.

Lab-grown meat would be at risk of becoming a target of such movements – and make no mistake that some big-money industries would be more than happy to see it happen.

First impressions count

Lab-grown meat is slowly making its way into mainstream news, which is good, as it means there won’t be total surprise and suspicion when a new product hits the shelves. However, widespread consumer reaction is yet to be truly tested. There have been suggestions that ‘clean meat’ may be more of a consumer-friendly name as ‘lab-grown’ has negative connotations. Another option is ‘cultured meat’ but there is concern that many people won’t understand what ‘cultured’ really means.

The key is to avoid tabloid headlines such as ‘Frankenmeat’ gaining traction and people being unnecessarily frightened by the product. Lessons in openness and transparency can be learnt from GMO food, where people became very upset at their food being unknowingly genetically modified. If producers were honest from the beginning and educated consumers about what was in the product, then there may not have been such a scandal.

It is also worth accepting now that some consumers will never trust lab-grown meat, no matter how much money and effort is put into branding. To them, it will always be gross, unnatural, and something to eye with suspicion. For those more open-minded, two factors are going to be the most important – taste and cost.

The taste test

Assuming people are open-minded enough to try the product, the most important thing will be how it stacks up to the meat they know and trust. Appearance, taste, smell, and texture are going to be major deciding factors when it comes to their willingness to make the switch.

The original lab-made burger created in 2013 was dry and tasted like a protein cake – but the taste has come a long way since then. Recent taste tests have been far more promising. Even if it is not perfect right now, it is rational to assume this improvement will continue when considering the rapid progress made in only six years.

If the taste and texture can be replicated well enough, people will be far more open-minded to making the transition. However, if lab-grown meat is hampered with a ‘not quite the same as the real thing’ reputation from the early days, then that could be a very difficult tag to shake off.

Pricey fad or major market player?

The first burger grown in a lab cost over $300, 000 to make – only six years ago. The cost of lab-grown meat has plummeted as technology has improved and by the time it hits the shelves of supermarkets, it is estimated to be considered ‘inexpensive’ to middle-class consumers. As with the issue of taste and texture, given the pace of improvement, the cost will likely only improve too.

I have a feeling lab-grown meat will do well with middle class ‘conscious carnivores’, or in other words the people who feel like they should probably be vegan but also don’t really want to. Guilty. However, to appeal to the mass market not just in the UK, but around the world, lab-grown meat will need to be the same price or cheaper than existing offerings.

Some vegan burgers are already on sale in major restaurant chains and doing well. There’s no reason why lab-grown meat cannot too. If the products gain traction, it is not hard to imagine lab-grown meat actually becoming cheaper than livestock farmed meat. Meat that has come from a living animal may end up only coming from small ethical farms if there is a more profitable product to be made. It will be expensive – but many would argue that it should be expensive.

The tipping point

People are slowly but surely waking up to the very real threat of climate change. There will be plenty who will gladly switch to a product they believe to be more environmentally friendly, as evidenced by how many people have got on board with plastic reduction after the success of TV shows like Blue Planet. 

As with all trends, there could be a tipping point where ‘everyone is doing it’ and it becomes normalised. People thought quitting smoking would never catch on when studies began to come out linking it to cancer in the 50s. It is not beyond reason to imagine that in fifty years’ time we could look back in astonishment at the cruel and polluting ways our global appetite for meat used to be sated.

This series is exploring questions about lab-grown meat. I’ve already talked about whether lab-grown meat will be healthy, ethical, environmentally friendly, and whether we could consider it to be vegan. All views expressed are my own.