In order to sell eaters on meat grown in a lab, the industry may need to look to craft beer as a model. One biotech exec says it's smart to talk about in-vitro meat as a quality choice, not a moral one.
Right now, a group of companies are racing to introduce you to a radically new kind of food: “meat” cultured in labs, rather than grown on farms. Maybe you’ve heard about these products, which don’t require animals to be raised or slaughtered. Sometimes they’re called “clean” meat. Or “lab-grown” meat. Or “synthetic.” Or “in-vitro.” Or “cell-cultured.”
Maybe one reason the nomenclature is so confusing is because we’re still not quite sure how to feel about what is essentially test-tube meat. This scientific innovation, born out of the growing field of cellular agriculture, has more in common with medical biotechnology—and Blade Runner—than raising livestock. And though some companies claim they’re just a few months away from bringing lab-grown meat to market—first in restaurants, and later on supermarket shelves—those predictions are probably optimistic, and downplay just how much work needs to be done to acclimate us, as a culture, to this new approach to food. For now, the idea of growing animal cells at scale inside a bioreactor is still really foreign to most people.
Biologically, these products are meat. But it could take a wholesale reimagining and redefining of a food group that many people feel very passionate about before they accept it on their plates. And that work that is already playing out in battles over what, exactly, to call this stuff. Proponents of cellular agriculture are faced with a marketing dilemma: What do you call a product to stress that it’s a major departure from the familiar, without conjuring images of a sinister science experiment (“vat meat,” anyone?) that will surely stress people out?