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Change Is Coming: Cell-Cultured Meat

Both the FDA and USDA recently awarded regulatory approvals to Upside Foods and to GoodMeat chicken.  So, whether you call it cell-based, in vitro, slaughter-free or lab-grown meat, it’s on the way, and it could disrupt protein production and completely change the way we think about meat.  

Right now, though, cell-cultured begs some questions: 

•    Are consumers ready for this? 
•    Do they know what cell-cultured meat is?
•    Are they aware and interested in it?  

Our recent independent research, The Taste of Change: Consumer Perceptions of Cell-Cultured Meat, gives insights into the mind of the consumer on this topic.  We investigated perceptions of lab-grown meat among a representative sample, from a variety of demographic groups.  Then, we tracked how product education affected participants’ openness to trial, with fascinating results.

Reach out for the details of that study, the data, and expert insights into what the numbers really mean, plus answers to the above three questions and many more.

ESA’s foodservice experts also have some big-picture answers: 

•    How will cell-cultured meat launch into foodservice?
•    When will we start eating it at our local fast-food joints?  
•    What patron pain points might it address to increase restaurant traffic?
•    What objections will operators need to address?

Cell-Cultured Meat’s Debut and Timeline

Upside Food’s chicken has already begun its launch into foodservice at Chef Dominique Crenn’s San Francisco restaurant, Bar Crenn.  The average member of the eating public, though, has a long wait before we see cell-cultured meat in full-service or quick-service restaurants, and before it appears in retail.

In these very early days of cell-cultured meat’s premier, professional and celebrity chefs will prepare the first high-cost, limited-supply products in high-visibility restaurants.  

•    Patrons at these restaurants – which make up about 1% of restaurants in the US – expect to pay higher check totals for exclusive menu items.  

•    Their menus, which change daily and often feature limited-availability dishes, accommodate cell-cultured’s current low production capacity.  Patrons feel differently about being waitlisted for an item at Bar Crenn than they would about being told their local Chili’s has run out of wings.  

•    High-profile fine dining restaurants provide positive public relations and media attention for manufacturers as cell-cultured takes its first steps into the market.  Bar Crenn, for instance, eliminated all meat from its menu in 2018, making Upside’s debut there an even more newsworthy occasion.

After its debut in fine dining, cell-based meat’s production capacity constraints will delay its movement into full-service dining.  We’d expect to wait for technology, infrastructure and logistics to catch up, and for consumer education and market preparation. 

In those initial stages, we’ll likely see development of products that blend cell-cultured meat with plant-based meats, and potentially blends of cell-cultured and traditional animal meat, to bolster production capacity and reduce costs.  

Then, we’ll see movement toward more variety in the category, as it shifts from products like foie gras and veal to higher-volume products like ground beef.  Likely these will remain blended products, to reduce costs across the value chain, for quite some time.

Limited-time-offers in full-service restaurants, tests of the market, and one step at a time, until cell-cultured meat eventually reaches the kind of production volume and consumer acceptance necessary to start appearing at fast food restaurants or arenas and ballparks.  

These penetrations of the foodservice market may take some time -- it'll be a while before cell-cultured shows up at our local fast-food joints -- but they’re almost certainly coming.

Cell-Cultured Meat Addresses Consumer Concerns

Cell-cultured meat could potentially address all the concerns we found among consumers in our Diet Drivers report: environmental concerns and climate change, animal welfare, and human health and wellness.
Once production reaches scale, cell-cultured meat will help reduce our impact on the environment:

•    Animal agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and animal waste pollution.  

•    Many of the crops fed to livestock grow in monocultured fields and are sprayed with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, each of which causes its own set of problems.  

•    Water use for these crops and for the animals themselves depletes water resources.  

Cell-cultured meat eliminates all these issues, and as cell-cultured production processes and facilities grow and mature, environmental benefits will grow, as well.

Concern for animal welfare also ranked high among our Diet Driver participants.

Cell-cultured meat grows directly from animal tissue cell, with similar biological processes to those that happen inside an animal.  Rather than a living animal being raised for slaughter, the process in a lab produces only muscle and fat – the parts we eat. The resulting meat is identical to conventional meat at the cellular level but does not require the raising and slaughtering of animals, and no animals are harmed in any way.

Diet Drivers participants also named human health among their concerns as they make food choices, and cell-cultured meat addresses those concerns positively, as well.  

•    Eliminating or dramatically reducing livestock feed lots decreases the incidence of zoonotic diseases like avian flus that can mutate and infect people, potentially as pandemics. 

•    Cell-cultured meat would also reduce our exposure to the antibiotics used to prevent feed lot animal disease.  

•    It would also reduce exposure to more everyday – but still dangerous – pathogens like e coli that can originate in the animal meat we eat.  

•    And cell-cultured meat does not contain the hormones used to increase animal growth and meat production.

Some Consumers Hesitate

In The Taste of Change: Consumer Perceptions of Cell-Cultured Meat, we found that about 40% of consumers indicated they were aware of cell-cultured meat.  Of those, only 14% stated they would be interested in trying it.  

Of the remaining 60% who were not aware, 17% stated they would be interested in trying cell-cultured meat, based on the name alone.

While the data doesn’t necessarily reflect for certain whether consumers fully understand what cell-cultured meat is (and is not), this is a product with a PR problem.  Despite the ways it addresses the very concerns consumers name as most important to them – climate issues, animal welfare and human health -- cell-cultured meat hasn’t communicated its benefits yet.  

It needs a better public image and more public understanding.

Education Changes Minds

When we presented the respondents in our study with a three-sentence explanation, the numbers measuring their openness to trial changed significantly.  Among other things, our research proved that even the briefest definition of cell-cultured meat can help resolve consumer confusion and move people in favor of trial. 

To ease apprehensions about cell-cultured meat, we’ll need education, education, and more education. That education will probably include factual ad campaigns, infomercials, and documentaries. 

So far, messaging about cell-cultured meat has had a tech and investor audience, and no one likes to think about "tech" and food. "Lab" and "yummy” or “craveable" do not go together in people's minds or hearts. 

Messaging must now shift from those tech and investor audiences to the consumer, who’ll be able to enjoy 100% chicken, beef or bacon without harming animals, with less environmental impact, and with greater consumer safety.  “Cell-cultured” and other technical-sounding terms will have to give way to “cruelty-free” or other more marketable terms that address consumers’ concerns and desires.

Education about the part cell-cultured meat can play in resolving the concerns consumers have named about food and food production can overcome initial concerns.  The key will be talking to consumers in a way that resonates with their wants and addresses their needs from the food supply.

Clear Path Ahead

While its initial launch has just begun in fine dining, there’s a clear timeline for the expansion of cell-cultured meat into the greater foodservice market.  It addresses all of the top concerns consumers name about our food system, and obstacles to consumer acceptance can be resolved with education and communication.  Education reduces consumer hesitancy and eases the way to trial.  

From there, it’s up to the food and beverage industry.

All segments of foodservice can start preparing for new demand, new products, and new brands as cell-cultured cruelty-free meat moves out of the lab, on to menus, and into the mainstream.

Reach out for more information on our quarterly research reports.  Available so far in 2023: Diet Drivers and the first in our The Taste of Change series, The Taste of Change: Consumer Perceptions of Cell-Cultured Meat.