Welcome to the last post in my 5-part series blog about cell-based meat! In the first four posts, I discussed what people are calling it, how it is produced, its predicted environmental impact, and how it will be regulated. Now, in my final post, we will explore the crux of the issue: are people going to be willing to buy and eat it?
Consumers have been looking for transparency in the food industry for decades. They are increasingly interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced. I believe communicating this will be just as important for cell-based meat.
There is no better cautionary tale of this lack in communication than the demonization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Public acceptance is a concept built by individuals’ acceptance, which varies wildly depending on knowledge and life experiences. Whether we are talking about GMOs or cultured meat, the way people perceive the food (is it safe? dangerous? natural? healthy?) is dependent on many, many factors. The Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement Poll covers this topic.
All this work to create a product and bring it to scale is only worthwhile if people are willing to buy it. In this regard, public perception is important, which is why the discussion on naming the product is such a big deal. In a market moving from processed foods to “all natural,” I cannot think of anything less natural than lab-grown meat. It has a sentiment referred to as the “yuck” factor. While Americans have expressed scruples about cell-based meat, other countries like India and China are more willing to embrace it.
Another concern is making the product cost effective. Many media outlets have implied that we should expect cell-based meats on market shelves this year (2019), but this seems very optimistic. Each pound costs thousands of dollars, though companies are working to reduce prices. Compare this to conventionally-produced meat bought in your local grocery store. Our trusty scientific article says, “Muscle cell culture media are expensive, in fact prohibitive on the large scale, therefore, the manufacture of a sustainable, animal-free, affordable media is a major challenge.” In other words, “All of this is moot if we cannot produce it economically. If it cannot be competitive in price, it will not be competitive on the market, though it looks like we are headed in that direction.”
There are also questions of bioethics, religious implications (does this mean we could have kosher bacon?) and stem cells. The prospect of cell-based meat forces us to alter our world view, or at least question it a little bit. What constitutes meat? What constitutes food production, or farming, or agriculture? Is this the answer to vegetarian prayers – the ability to consume meat that was not the result of slaughter? Or will we learn that the world is full of trade offs?
Thank you for following my blog series! I am interested to see how this technology develops and how the issues unfold. And now, the question everyone wants to ask, the only one that really matters: would you eat it?