Selling “Cell-Based”: New Study Sheds Light and Raises Questions about Naming of Real (Reel-Free) Fish

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BlueNalu’s yellowtail is delicious, but is it cell-based, cultivated, clean, cultured, or something else?

By Paul Shapiro

Cultured meat, clean meat, cultivated meat, cell-based meat, craft meat — lovers of linguistic diversity have every reason to rejoice when they come upon the topic of real meat grown from animal cells.

While opponents of the food tend to use pejorative or science-y names like “lab-grown meat” and “in vitro meat,” advocates have typically adopted names that sound more natural and therefore appetizing, whether cultivated meat, clean meat, or even craft meat. But one thing is clear to nearly everyone: What this meat is called has a real impact on whether people want to eat it or not, as I’ve written.

A few years ago, many leaders in the space were using the term “clean meat” (including even Cargill’s CEO), but a fear by some that the term was too alienating to the conventional meat industry led several of those leaders in 2018 to move away from it. (Interestingly, KFC this month, July 2020, stated that growing this kind of meat “creat[es] a cleaner final product” than conventional chicken.)

As a result, along with a major meat trade association, some start-up leaders began using the term “cell-based meat” in 2018. I was thrilled to see the collaboration with the meat industry, but as I wrote at the time, while the term seemed quite science-y to me, I’d love to see more actual consumer data to affirm or disprove that gut instinct.

There’ve been other consumer studies since, and good news: we now have even more data!

BlueNalu Dives into the Data

BlueNalu, a leading startup growing fish meat, has done a service to the entire field by funding a new Rutgers study looking at consumer perceptions of a variety of names. (Disclosure: I’m a fan of BlueNalu, have interviewed their CEO on my podcast and written favorably about their work for the San Diego Union-Tribune.) The startup pointed out that no independent, peer-reviewed consumer research existed to determine the appropriate “common or usual name” for its products, which is an FDA requirement, as described in a recent blog post by BlueNalu CEO Lou Cooperhouse.

Headlines about the new Rutgers research from Forbes to Food Dive touted the results of the new study, letting readers know that it turns out “cell-based” is the “preferred” and “best” term for consumers.

These headlines were surprising to me, since other studies have shown “cell-based” performs worse than other names with consumers, and consumer experts like Barb Stuckey of Mattson have questioned whether consumers actually want to “eat cells,” advocating instead for “cultivated” based on her consumer research. Working with The Good Food Institute (GFI) and Mattson launched both their preferred nomenclature and a full narrative (complete with graphics) around “cultivated meat” which involves cultivating meat in cultivators.

However, my confusion was lessened after reading the actual Rutgers study. That’s because the research wasn’t testing which name sounded most appealing to consumers. Rather, their goal was to find a name the researchers believed FDA would find suitable for product labeling and consumer packaging, and its “common or usual name” that would be required. Thus, they state their number one criterion for selecting the “best” name was which term “enabled consumers to best distinguish cell-based seafood from wild and farmed fish.”

In other words, the best term in their view is the one that makes it clearest that this food is different from conventional fish.

Of course, the FDA and USDA do actively want labels to clearly differentiate between products, and satisfying them is step one in even getting the product in front of consumers. However, given that all fish and meat is cell-based (whether wild-caught, farmed, cell-cultured, or even plant-based), it does beg the question of whether the term actually succeeds in differentiating, regardless of what consumers think.

Is “Cell-Based” a Keeper or Should it Be Thrown Back?

The Rutgers study may shed light on what federal agencies will find useful when deciding what to call such food. But what does the study have to say about whether consumers actually find the term appetizing?

“I’ve been working in food and beverage innovation for 22 years and consumers don’t want to eat science,” Barb Stuckey says. “When you talk about cells, you leave the realm of deliciousness, which makes it very difficult to sell people on an idea.”

The Rutgers study at least in some ways seems to have affirmed Stuckey’s view. Yes, it discovered that “cell-based” most clearly makes the product seem different from conventional fish, but it also found that consumers think “cell based seafood” is more likely to be genetically modified than the other terms they tested, such as “cultivated” and “cultured.”

To quote the study’s author: “The terms containing the word ‘cell’ were perceived (in general) as more likely to be genetically modified than those without it.”

Looking at tables 3–11 of the Rutgers study, although the differences are admittedly not that major, “cultivated” performed best across positivity, nutrition, taste, likelihood to purchase, and “how natural.” Statisticians may not find the differences to be that significant, but combined with the result that “cell-based” is most likely to be seen as the product of genetic engineering, those seem like results worth considering, at least in the context of how to refer to the products outside of a regulatory context.

And speaking of GMOs, there’s actually a parallel here to that debate. Consumers might actually think “genetically modified” is the term most clearly differentiating such foods, but to the dismay of GMO opponents, the food industry eventually prevailed in not having to label “GMO,” instead getting to use the consumer-friendlier “bioengineered,” even if it less clearly differentiates between products.

JUST CEO Josh Tetrick, the protagonist of Chase Purdy’s new book on this field, doesn’t see his company using “cell-based” any time soon. “Calling it ‘cell-based’ not only doesn’t differentiate it from any other kind of meat, but it’s a very effective way to turn consumers off in my experience,” he said.

It’s worth noting that even for regulatory purposes, according to the Rutgers study, what the FDA is looking for is a term that informs consumers about what they’re buying. So if the industry mobilizes around “cell-based,” perhaps that will be the term. But the industry could, instead, mobilize around “cultivated,” and if consumer education is sufficient, that would make sense on labels instead. At GFI’s conference, Fork & Goode CEO Niya Gupta explained, “I like ‘cultivated meat’ because it’s generic, like ‘organic.’ It can cover a very complex process that we have to be transparent about.” Tetrick agreed, saying that he prefers “cultivated” to “cultured.”

Fishing for the Right Name

GFI welcomed the new Rutgers study, as do I, since more data is always merrier. The nonprofit advocacy group, however, did not find reason to switch from its preferred term — cultivated — to cell-based when talking with the general public.

GFI’s Associate Director of Regulatory Affairs Elizabeth Derbes responded to the Rutgers study: “GFI will continue to use the word ‘cultivated’ to describe the broad category of meat, poultry, and seafood made directly from cells when we’re talking to general audiences…We look forward to additional research to inform our views on how companies like BlueNalu can best communicate with their future customers.”

And as Cooperhouse pointed out to me, it’s probably too soon for anyone to make a final determination yet anyway, as Dr. Hallman will be conducting a confirmatory follow-up study this fall to determine if his results are consistent across a nationally representative sample size. Furthermore, BlueNalu’s research looked at three types of seafood which are relevant to its market objectives, but results might be different if applied to poultry, beef, pork, fat, etc.

Thoughts from the Deep Blue(Nalu)

So what does BlueNalu say about this kind of concern, though? Cooperhouse reminds audiences that seafood is the only animal-based protein category that uses both wild and farmed animals at the industrial scale today, so U.S. consumers are accustomed to thinking about their seafood consumption choices in different ways: as either wild-caught or farm-raised. “This adds a layer of complexity for BlueNalu in terms of nomenclature,” he told me, “as consumers need to be able to distinguish our products from conventionally harvested products, which is something that producers of cell-based beef, pork or poultry do not have to contend with.”

Cooperhouse points out that some terms like “cultivated” or “cultured,” while perhaps consumer-friendlier than “cell-based,” are often used to describe conventional aquaculture products for example, so this creates potential confusion for future consumers of BlueNalu’s products. Dr. Hallman’s research did in fact identify that consumers did often think “cultivated” seafood meant farmed fish.

But that might not be hard to change. A quick search for “cultivated seafood” on Google reveals that the majority of the first page results all relate to seafood grown from cells. If the purveyors of these products got behind this nomenclature, that would inform consumers as more and more people learned about this new way of making fish.

“Consumers should be able to understand what a product is, and what it is not, by looking at the label in a grocery store,” Cooperhouse stressed to me. “This is not about marketing or personal preference. Rather, this is about identifying a common or usual name that is accurate and descriptive, which consumers understand and can differentiate, in order to meet FDA’s labeling requirements.”

Reeling this Column In

It’s possible that what a product is called by the government and therefore on product packaging may differ from marketing claims the purveyors of that product make. If “cell-based” does end up being used by the FDA for BlueNalu’s and similar products, the startups could still end up referring to their products as “clean” or “cultivated” in marketing and other endeavors, of course.

Cooperhouse suggested that BlueNalu might also use different language when communicating to consumers off-package, telling me, “BlueNalu, and other companies like us, will have plenty of other descriptive opportunities to market its products, so by no means is this the only way to communicate with our customers and market our products.”

If it turns out that there’s a tension between what regulators want to see on packaging and what the most appealing term to consumers actually is, startups in this space could be put between a rock and a hard coral reef. More research will help shed light on this, and it’s hoped that such research will take into consideration both of these concerns.

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.

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