A Rose by Any Other Name? For Meat, Not So Much

Names matter. Above are two real news headlines reporting on surveys that used different terms to describe meat grown from animal cells.

By Paul Shapiro

Would a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? Apparently so for Juliet when she gazed upon Romeo, but the same can’t be said of the modern consumer, where marketing is critical and names are meaningful.

Think for example about how the Affordable Care Act is more popular than Obamacare, despite being different names for the same law. Or how calling the estate tax on multimillionaires a “death tax” helped turn Americans against the policy. Or how labeling a food “vegan” vs. “plant-based” substantially impacts its popularity.

Turns out the same is true when it comes to meat grown from animal cells (as opposed to animal slaughter). A recent consumer survey conducted by Charleston|Orwig made headlines about how scared Americans are of such food, leading to predictions that the startups in the space will have an uphill battle to win customers.

However, the survey polled people by using some of the least appealing names that have been conceived for such foods. (Having spoken with Charleston|Orwig’s CEO, I doubt this was their intent, unlike push polls on the topic published by opponents of such food technology.) But really: does your mouth water when you hear about “synthetic or lab-grown food”? That’s how the question was posed to consumers in this new poll, leading many respondents to indicate that they wouldn’t eat it.

Of course, meat cultivated from animal cells is real meat; it’s not synthetic. And while it’s initially developed in a lab, so are all processed foods, from a bowl of Cheerios to a pint of Sam Adams. Ultimately, these foods are produced at scale in factories, not labs. That’s why groups like The Good Food Institute refer to this meat as “cultivated meat.”

What may be more relevant than the headline takeaway from this new survey is just how many people in the new survey, even with such an unappealing description, were still down to try such meat: 21 percent! This closely mirrors a 2014 Pew Research poll asking Americans “Would you eat meat that was grown in a lab?” Twenty percent said yes. Same with a 2012 English survey asking if Brits would eat “artificial meat that can be grown in a laboratory.” Lo and behold, 19 percent said yes, they would. (I should note an outlier: A 2017 survey calling it “in vitro meat” still found a whopping two-thirds of Americans would at least try it.)

Seems then like the worst-case scenario is that “only” a fifth of folks would eat such meat. But imagine if demand for meat from slaughtered animals were to actually fall by 20 percent. Even a two percent drop would be major news, considering that demand is actually rising throughout nearly all the world right now. But a drop in 20 percent would spare billions of animals and have transformational effects that would literally change how the world looks from space. (Read: more forests and wetlands, less land used by feed crops.)

Now let’s look at surveys when the question is posed more favorably. When Americans were asked by Florida Atlantic University researchers about “cultured meat,” 60 percent said they’d eat it, and the number jumped to 80 percent when environmental benefits were explained. Similarly, a 2018 Faunalytics survey asking about “clean meat” found two-thirds of Americans would try it.

One need only look at the headlines generated by such surveys to see how different consumers think of this food depending on what it’s called. (See the above graphic.)

One of the world’s foremost experts on the topic, Chris Bryant (see his research for example here and here), isn’t surprised by the widely variant responses consumers give. “Names matter,” Bryant told me. “If you want people to switch from conventional meat to slaughter-free meat when it hits the market, names like ‘cultivated meat’ and ‘clean meat’ perform much better with consumers than more science-y names like “lab-grown’ or ‘cell-based.’”

As Quartz reporter Chase Purdy described in a recent article, there’s currently a debate in the cellular agriculture community about what to call such meat. I offered some thoughts in that story and more in-depth here, too. The fact that consumers react so differently to the product depending on what it’s called underscores why a consumer-friendly (i.e., non-scientific) name is so important.

In short, the more scientific a food is named, the less likely consumers are to want it. The more natural a name sounds, the more likely they are to put it in their mouths. Of course, nearly everything we eat today is the product of science, but we prefer to think of a flannel-cloaked farmer more than a white-lab-coated scientist when we consider who made our food.

In a logical world inhabited by Vulcans, a rose would indeed smell just as sweet by any other name. Sadly, Homo sapiens aren’t Vulcans, and names — whether for federal laws or the foods we eat — dramatically impact what we think about the subject at hand.

Bon appetit, friends!

Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker. Paul-Shapiro.com