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Cultivated meat needs a juicy story

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Cultivated meat is in the delivery room. From America to Japan, several dozen companies are developing burgers and hot dogs that don’t require slaughter. Will it be a success?

By Mirjam Vossen

(Photo: Jamie He/Pexels)

The promises of cultivated meat and farmed fish are great: meat and fish without animal suffering, meat without wasting agricultural land, fish without emptying the oceans. Food for 10 billion people whereby – unlike with many meat substitutes – we can continue to enjoy the bite and taste of meat. Lab-grown chicken is already available on a limited scale in Singapore.

In Europe, the product first has to make its way through the forest of requirements set by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Member states must then vote on admission to the European market. In the US, regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture awaits. Only then will it be in the shops or on the menu.

But even now, developers of cultivated meat should be concerned about the hearts and minds of consumers. According to the Good Food Institute, an American organisation that promotes the development of cultivated meat: ‘We have a golden – and short – chance to proactively inform public opinion about this groundbreaking method of meat production.’

After all, consumer trust starts long before we walk through the supermarket with our shopping cart. It starts with headlines, social media debates and conversations with friends. A well-chosen frame beforehand paves the way for acceptance.

A study found that if people are properly informed, they are willing to sink their teeth into a cultivated burger.

According to Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, consumer confidence is in good shape. A study by Mosa Meat and Maastricht University found that if people are properly informed, they are willing to sink their teeth into a cultivated burger. That’s enough to convince early adopters. The biggest challenge, Mosa Meat says, is completely replacing serum from unborn calves with an artificial serum. Mosa Meat has now developed such a serum.

And then there’s the cost reduction: a cultivated hamburger, produced on a large scale, would cost €9 today. If the product is safe and cheap enough, the consumer will follow.

However, it wouldn’t be the first time a promising technology has hit a wall in the real world. Genetically modified food is an example. Over a thousand studies have provided overwhelming scientific evidence that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat. In Europe, however, the regulations are so strict that – unlike in the US – they barely come onto the market.

The same fate has befallen Crispr-Cas, a technology with which, simply put, genes of organisms can be turned ‘on’ and ‘off’. For example, it is relatively easy to make maize or tomatoes that are more drought tolerant or less prone to disease. Crispr-Cas does not involve any foreign gene; you could get the same result with natural selection. Yet the European authorities classify it under the rules for genetically modified crops – aided by environmental lobbying and reluctant public opinion.

Even long-standing technologies can turn public opinion against them. Take vaccinations, a powerful weapon in reducing diseases and disabilities in children. Until recently, resistance was mainly found in strict religious circles. But vaccines are now widely accused of being unsafe.

Technology can create resistance. This is especially true for technology related to food and health.

Then there is nuclear, a form of energy that not only emits little CO2, but has also caused the fewest victims per unit of energy generated to date. However, that is not the image most people have of it. After one accident in Fukushima following a gruesome natural disaster with no fatalities from radiation, Germany banned the technology because of the risks.

Finally, E numbers. Not really a technology, but an indication for approved excipients in our food. Some are made in the factory using chemical processes. That arouses suspicion among some: E numbers are ‘artificial’ and ‘unnatural’ – and therefore they must be bad for health.

Technology can create resistance. This is especially true for technology related to food and health. This resistance cannot simply be removed by figures about safety. If cultivated meat, Crispr-Cas and other innovations are to win the hearts of the public, they must be framed in an appealing way.

Frame 1: Progress

The story of cultivated meat starts in 2013 with Dutch researcher Mark Post. Presenting the first cultivated hamburger in a petri dish, Post tells a hopeful, optimistic story about a better future: cultivated meat can help move the world forward.

A similar frame of progress is also used with Crispr-Cas and, long ago, nuclear energy: it would bring electricity ‘too cheap to meter’.

Progress is also the frame for faith in science. Images of lab coats and petri dishes with cultivated meat reinforce this frame. Crispr-Cas is depicted through images of researchers behind microscopes and DNA strands with cutting scissors. Man controls nature, science controls it.

This progress frame has been an enormously inspiring force behind innovations in society for centuries. But it has competition from other frames over our handling of technology...

Frame 2: Destruction

For can we trust science – or rather, ourselves? After all, with our ingenious technological inventions, humans can not only improve the world, but also help destroy it.

Mary Shelley described this story of ‘runaway technology’ in Frankenstein (1818), about a scientist who wants to make something beautiful but gives birth to a monster. Today, we see the theme in movies like Blade Runner and in TV series like Black Mirror, where technological discoveries culminate in a pitch-black society.

Note the imagery and language used in this frame. In stories about genetic technology and Crispr-Cas, we see skulls and birds with lions’ heads. Nuclear power plants are ‘ticking time bombs’, and the cultivated meat burger has already been dubbed the ‘Frankenstein burger’.

Frame 3: Sustainability

A third story about technology is that humans must take care of nature. If we destroy nature, we ultimately destroy ourselves. This ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ frame fuels, on the one hand, resistance to ‘unnatural’ vaccinations, E numbers and ‘tinkering with genes’. But on the other hand, it also fuels the acceptance of energy from wind and sun.

The sustainability frame is the foundation of the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with which the world wants to end poverty and climate change. We see it in adverts for Bertolli pasta sauces and Blueband butter, with nostalgic village communities and green pastures. And in the McDonald’s logo, which changed its background colour from ‘dangerous’ red to ‘safe’ green in order to project a more environmentally friendly image.

The question is: which story about cultivated meat will the public embrace? Will it be the frame of the blessings of science and progress? Will it be a story of runaway technology, the risks of which we cannot foresee? Or does the ‘green’ frame that tells us not to harm the earth prevail?

The green narrative, in particular, could put wind in the sails of cultivated meat. After all, cultivated meat saves a lot of agricultural area and prevents a lot of animal suffering. But it is not a done deal. Genetically modified crops, too, have enormous benefits for people and the environment. For the time being, however, the technology in Europe has not managed to escape the Frankenstein story.

When it comes to cultivated meat, the environmental group Friends of the Earth has already rolled up its sleeves. In a report published in 2018, the organisation warns of the dangers of products such as cultivated meat and meat substitutes such as the Impossible Burger: they are high-tech, require many additives and are made using an unknown production process.

It is not the dry facts, but the framing that determines how the public feels about it.

Words and pictures determine the image of a technology. If you doubt that, you could do a little thought experiment. For example, imagine a technology that allows us to generate electricity. However, this requires metals such as aluminium, silver, lead, chromium and cadmium. Recycling them is still too expensive, so the metals from discarded appliances end up in landfills. This energy generator is expected to lead to a worldwide waste mountain of 78 million tonnes by 2050.

Despite this, solar energy – because that’s what it’s about – has an undisputed green image.

Technological innovations can learn from solar energy as well as from genetic technology and E numbers. It is not the dry facts, but the framing that determines how the public feels about it. Certainly, high-tech advancement frames can boomerang back to consumers who crave green, natural and healthy food on their plates.

What frames should developers and marketers develop about cultivated meat? The Good Food Institute published an answer to this question in 2019. It spent nine months working on a story about cultivated meat. This was done with focus groups and a panel of 344 Americans, who represented a cross-section of society in terms of age and gender. They were asked to decide which explanation about cultivated meat appealed to them most. How did they respond?

Concepts such as clean meat, cell-based meat and lab-grown meat did not make it. They evoked a strong feeling of ‘unnaturalness’. But terms such as ‘mother nature’ and ‘wholesome’ also disappeared in the trash: they were too much like marketing language. The term that appealed the most was cultivated meat.

Once a technology such as cultivated meat has an unnatural or Frankenstein image, political and public acceptance becomes an agony.

What about the favourite images for cultivated meat? Which photos and films would help to eventually get it on the menus of restaurants and the shelves of the supermarket? The public did not opt ​​for images of DNA strands and petri dishes. Nor did they choose pictures in which cultivated meat was compared with normal meat production. The audience was most enthusiastic about a graphic that compared cultivated meat to growing a plant: a sample of cells in a kind of incubator, fed with heat and nutrients, like a plant in a greenhouse.

Prevention is better than cure. Once a technology such as cultivated meat, nuclear energy or Crispr-Cas has an unnatural or Frankenstein image, political and public acceptance becomes an agony. No research with proof of safety can compete with that. Developers and marketers can do a lot themselves to prevent this, by thinking from the outset about the story they want to use to sell their products.

Mirjam Vossen is a media framing expert from the Netherlands, and involved with RePlanet.


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