How we talk about meat grown without animals: Unpacking the debate and the data

As meat grown without animals gets closer to market, the debate about what to call it continues. At this critical juncture, we explain the history of the name “clean meat” and how we’re thinking about it in light of the results from our latest consumer research study.
Clean meat being prepared and packaged

What’s in a name?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

True. But if we called roses “perennial shrubs,” would they still dominate the US’s $2BN shopping spree for Valentine’s Day flowers?

Names matter. This is why getting the name right is a noteworthy challenge at the heart of the new industry developing around meat made without animals.

Meat grown without raising and slaughtering animals will help to lessen an enormous number of public health, environmental, and ethical problems. Ideally, how it’s talked about will communicate this. At the end of the day, this meat is better for the consumer, the planet, and our food system, so we want people to be aware of the benefits.

This technology has been used in the medical field for decades. However, growing animal meat without an animal is a relatively new application for it. Most people still don’t even know that this is possible. What it’s called in the headlines will equate to a first impression for most people in the coming months and years.

Why GFI started using “clean meat”

Since Dr. Mark Post debuted the first burger grown directly from animal cells in 2013, myriad terms have peppered the discourse: everything from “cultured meat” and “lab meat” (#perennialshrub) to “clean meat” —GFI’s historically preferred term—and more recently “cell-based meat” and even “craft meat.”

Data-driven pragmatism is our modus operandi at GFI, so from the beginning of this conversation, we’ve been looking at this question through the lens of data. We conducted a naming study a few years ago to evaluate the initial suggestions (“cultured,” “pure,” “clean,” “safe,” and “meat 2.0” ). This research demonstrated that “clean meat” was the best from among the tested options.

Over the past two years, research by Animal Charity Evaluators, Hart Research Associates for New Harvest, and Bryant and Barnett (forthcoming) has also pointed to “clean meat” as the best of the tested terms for gaining consumer acceptance.

This is why we adopted “clean meat”  back in 2016 and why we’ve continued to use it. Less than two years later, “clean meat” has become the most common phrase in both the media and Google searches.

Language is never static, especially in an emerging field

With that said, “clean meat” has its critics, and understandably so. Many people have raised concerns that “clean meat” is not descriptive enough or that it puts potential partners in the meat industry on their heels by implying that conventional meat is dirty. This is a critical concern, since having meat industry partners will be invaluable in securing a regulatory path to market and ultimately to the success of a meat industry without animals.

Leading cellular agriculture company UPSIDE Foods has recently begun using the phrase “cell-based meat,” noting the need for a descriptive term that differentiates their product category from animal-based meat and plant-based meat. Food evangelist and GFI friend and advisor Jack Bobo has suggested “craft meat” to emphasize the quality and taste of these meats. The US Food and Drug Administration held a public meeting about this “novel technology,” leading many current meat producers to chime in as well (“fake meat!” ).

Our latest research

To further inform the ongoing discussion and determine if there is a term that is better than “clean meat,” GFI began another comprehensive naming project in July, led by Sr. Consumer Research Scientist Keri Szejda, PhD. We evaluated consumer perceptions of various names based not only on their appeal but also on their descriptiveness and differentiation. We also assessed the impact of the names on people’s intention to try and intention to buy this product.

You can click here for the full methodology of the study, but here are the basics:

To ensure a complete set of names to test, we solicited input from a wide variety of perspectives through a stakeholder survey, gathering input from cellular agriculture companies, academic researchers, and nonprofit organizations in the field, including the Cellular Agriculture Society, Food Frontier, and New Harvest.

With more than 70 unique names now on our list, each member of the research team provided a holistic rating for each term, which narrowed this list to 31 of the most viable names. We then conducted a preliminary consumer survey to assess each name’s appeal and descriptiveness. This further narrowed the list down to five names that merited deeper study: “clean meat,” “craft meat,” “cell-based meat,” “cultured meat,” and “slaughter-free meat.”

Finally, we conducted two experiments testing the impact on consumer perceptions (Does the name sound appealing? Does it provide an accurate description? Does it help differentiate the product from conventional meat?) and intended behaviors (Would you try it? Would you buy it?). In this final phase of our project, we worked with Datassential to poll more than 1,000 US consumers. Here are our topline results:

Perceptions of the name

The names “slaughter-free meat,” “craft meat,” “clean meat,” and “cultured meat” were similar in appeal, and each was significantly more appealing than “cell-based meat.” In terms of descriptiveness and differentiation, “cell-based meat” and “slaughter-free meat” outperformed the others.

Intended behaviors

The different names also influenced consumers’ intended behaviors. In this case, “craft meat” and “slaughter-free meat” ranked better than the others at generating interest in trying and in purchasing these products. “Cell-based meat” ranked last.

Our takeaway

“Slaughter-free meat” was a promising find, as it was the only high performer on every tested criterion. Its appeal is not surprising, given that Oklahoma State University found that 47% of consumers want to ban slaughterhouses. Its descriptiveness is simple and straightforward.

However, there are concerns about the neutrality of this term and its capacity to serve as a consensus-builder among all the stakeholders, which the design of this survey does not address—i.e., would “slaughter-free” solve one of the biggest challenges “clean” poses? We haven’t collected that data, but our hunch is that it would not.

Notably, “cultured meat” also ranked better than “cell-based” for appeal and likelihood to purchase. Though not as high-performing as “slaughter-free” on these criteria, “cultured” is likely to be perceived as more neutral than either “slaughter-free” or “clean” (again, just our judgment, not our data).

What now?

Our plan is to share our results with all of the stakeholders who contributed to the name ideation process in our continuing effort to build as much consensus as possible.

CEOs from many of the startups in this space recently came together to discuss what name to use, and “cell-based meat” was the preference coming out of that meeting. Our latest research indicates that “cell-based meat” is significantly less advantageous than “slaughter-free meat” or “clean meat” with regards to consumer appeal. However, it is clear that “clean meat” does not pass muster with some audiences—current meat producers among them—whose buy in is crucial to the product category’s success.

And there’s the rub. Underneath the naming debate, a secondary discussion is emerging: what is the primary purpose of the name at this critical juncture in the industry’s growth?

Before we can create a consensus around what the best name is, we must come to an agreement about what we mean by “best name.” Which audience does this name need to serve, first and foremost? What criteria should therefore be prioritized?

In our most recent survey, we looked at appeal, descriptiveness, differentiation from conventional meat, the likelihood of trying, and the likelihood of purchasing for a general consumer audience.

No name will speak to every audience equally effectively. There will be tradeoffs.

For instance, while differentiation is typically an advantage at an individual brand level, this particular product category is likely to gain traction only if people recognize it as familiar: it’s the meat people know and love. At the same time, we shouldn’t sell its differentiation short: it has the potential to be higher quality, less expensive, free of antibiotics, and better for the environment.

And first, of course, it has to make it to market. GFI has been working hard on the policy front to ensure that meat grown without animals has the opportunity to compete in a fair marketplace. We recognize that finding a name that facilitates establishing a regulatory pathway is mission critical. Here, neutrality will be an important criterion for building bridges with industry incumbents. Meanwhile, the name that the meat industry is most comfortable with is not necessarily a name that will entice investors.

Ultimately we need to be thinking both short- and long-term. We’re certainly playing a long game, but any long-term strategy will be irrelevant if we lose short-term battles. We need near-term solutions that support—or can be nudged over time to support—the long-term mission.

Okay, so really, what now?

Perhaps a two-term approach is the most pragmatic: a term for popular discourse and a term for technical, regulatory affairs. Or maybe there is a unifying term that can accomplish both in one fell swoop. If there is, we want to find it.

To that end, we are working with Mattson, a Silicon Valley-based food and beverage innovation firm specializing in consumer research, creative concepting, brand strategy and design, and product development. Mattson believes there is—and is interested in helping us find—a name that will work in all circumstances. Mattson and GFI will invite cellular agriculture companies to participate in the project.

For the present moment, we are sharing this research, and we remain in information-gathering mode. While we continue to collect more data, align priorities, and explore a unifying option, we will continue to use “clean meat” in popular discourse and either “cultured meat” or “cell-based meat” —as noted, the preferred term of many industry leaders—where we feel that the word “clean” might be counterproductive. Ultimately, we want to facilitate a fully informed, data-driven process in order to arrive at the optimal name or names with as much consensus as possible.

We look forward to further discussion!


Mary allen

Mary Allen GFI ALUM

Mary Allen is a science writer, creative strategist, and GFI alum focused on the intersection of sustainability and emerging technology. Find more of her work at