One of the biggest news stories from last week’s Good Food Conference (GFC) happened after all the speakers had left the stage. Over email, Brian Spears, the CEO and co-founder of cellular agriculture company New Age Meats, told me that:
1-2 reps of all the existing “clean meat” companies, except for just a few, met on Friday after the Good Food Conference. We decided that, for the purposes of working with traditional meat companies and US regulators, we are abandoning the term clean meat in favor of cell-based meat. We also decided to form an industry trade association.
Now, this is not the first time that clean meat (also known as in-vitro, lab-grown, and cultured meat) has rebranded. But unlike previous name switches, which were mostly working to quiet public fears and make meat grown in a lab environment sound palatable, this new term is targeting traditional meat companies and U.S. regulators.
In recent months, the question of what to call cultured meat has stirred up some serious controversy with both parties. A coalition of big meat production groups penned a letter to President Trump, asking for equal regulation for cell-based and traditional meat. A few months ago the FDA had a public meeting to open dialogue about regulation, terminology, and safety of cultured meat technology, and most recently a Missouri law went into effect which only allows food “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry” to be called “meat.”
By rebranding as “cell-based meat,” these companies are hoping to walk a fine line that will appease both consumers and the governing bodies who will eventually regulate food produced through cellular agriculture. “Cell-based meat” is certainly more revealing than “clean meat,” which, while it sounds nice, doesn’t exactly reveal why it’s clean.
That term is also pretty passive aggressive towards traditional meat companies. “Clean” implies that the alternative — that is, meat from slaughtered animals — is dirty. And if you compare the pristine lab environment in which cultured meat is made to a slaughterhouse, it certainly is cleaner. But that terminology is already ruffling lots of feathers in Big Meat, who are responding by writing letters and pushing laws to block “clean meat” from calling itself meat at all.
Honestly, I’m torn on whether the name change is a good idea — or even necessary. If cultured meat is as safe as its producers say (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be), it will eventually get regulatory approval and make its way to market — no matter what it’s called. To me, the bigger issue around naming is consumer acceptance. My guess is that people would gravitate to something called “clean” meat more readily than the comparatively clinical “cell-based” meat. But all that will lie with the marketing team, and right now most cultured meat companies are made up chiefly of scientists.
During the GFC, I was also struck by a point made by Barb Stuckey, President and Chief Innovation Officer at Mattson. She said: “I don’t know if what we call clean meat matters as much as what these companies do with their marketing. My family doesn’t think of Impossible burgers as “veggie burgers,” they’re just Impossible Burgers.” Maybe terminology won’t matter at all, and instead of asking for a “clean” or “cell-based” burger in 10 years, people will request a “Memphis” or a “Mosa.”
Though the number of cell-based meat companies is growing, there are still relatively few — only 27, was the number given at the GFC. A group that small can be agile, as long as they’re all on the same page. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see another rebrand, either for regulatory or consumer acceptance purposes, over the next few years.
If you’re curious about how plant- and cell-based meat will disrupt the consumer meal journey, join us at the Smart Kitchen Summit on October 8-9th for our Future of Meat panel featuring innovators from Seattle Food Tech, JUST, and more. Get your tickets before they sell out!