Last week we briefly covered news about a Rutgers study that found “cell-based” the best descriptor for lab-grown seafood products. Further thought and reading on the matter leads me to believe the study’s findings have implications for labeling across all of the cell-based protein space, not just seafood.
Here’s a quick recap: A new study by Rutgers in the Journal of Food Science recommends “Companies seeking to commercialize seafood products made from the cells of fish or shellfish should use the term ‘cell-based’ on product labels.”
The study, commissioned by cell-based seafood company BlueNalu, claims to be the first of its kind evaluating how to label alternative seafood products in a way that both appeals to consumers and meets regulatory requirements around product naming. The study was done by William Hallman, a professor who chairs the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers-New Brunswick’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He noted this week that participants in the study were able to tell the label “cell-based” apart from ones like “wild caught” or “farm raised,” and that those participants still believed the cell-based products were as nutritious as the others.
Other names tested in the study were “cell-cultured seafood” and “cultivated seafood,” as well as phrases like “cultivated from the cells of ____” and “grown directly from the cells of ____.”
It’s not hard to understand why “cell-based seafood” resonates the most with consumers. The above phrases lack the kind of concise description needed for food products, and terms like “cultivated seafood” are rather muddy in terms of describing what goes into making the product.
This question of labeling is only going to get bigger as cell-based proteins move further from concept and into a culinary reality for average consumers. We’ve already seen this play out to some degree with plant-based proteins. About a year ago, large meat corporations were pushing hard to ban their plant-based counterparts from using words like “burgers” and “sausages” on packaging. As we wrote previously, “Big Meat trying to quash alterna-meats’ popularity by telling companies how they can or can’t label themselves feels protectionist and ineffective, not to mention desperate, at this point.”
And that was before the pandemic. Since COVID-19 hit and shed an uncomfortably bright light on issues in traditional meat production, demand for alternative proteins has been through the roof. Just this week, investment network FAIRR released a report stating investment in alt-protein for the first half of 2020 is nearly double the amount for all of 2019. That includes cell-based protein.
Whether Big Seafood pushes back on labeling now that more cell-based seafood is coming to market remains to be seen. It will certainly have a lot of opponents if it does. BlueNalu just announced a new facility designed for commercial production of its alt-seafood products. Wild Type raised a $12.5 million Series A round last year for its cultured salmon, and Shiok Meats just partnered with Integriculture to scale up production of lab-grown shrimp. And those are only the seafood-focused players in the cell-cultured protein space.
Big Seafood aside, effective labeling of all these products — and all cell-based protein products, really — will be key to appealing to new consumers who may not have previously known about cell-based meat and dairy, and that it’s just as nutritious as the real deal. When it comes to finding a name for these alt-protein items, that could be the most difficult and most rewarding challenge companies face.