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A new consumer study finds that the term “cell-based” is the best way to label seafood made from cells grown in labs. Crucially, the study’s data would appear to illustrate that the term ‘did a good job at signaling’ that the product is different from both “wild caught” and “farm raised” seafood”. “Cell-based” also performed positively in terms of expectations of taste, food safety and the likelihood of buying the product compared to other terms such as cultured or cultivated. Though lab-grown proteins have yet to reach commercialisation, analysts believe that the wait will not be much longer, making it important for food techs to start considering nomenclature, namely what terms they will use for their alternative meat products.
A new study undertaken by professor William Hallman of Rutgers University, a public research institution in New Jersey in the United States, the term “cell-based” concludes that “ ‘cell‐based seafood’ appears to be the best candidate name considered in this study.” Commissioned by the cultivated seafood brand BlueNalu, the research involved a little over 3,000 participants who were tested on their reactions to seven different descriptions or terms of seafood products grown using cellular agriculture.
These included “cell-based”, “cell-cultured,” “cultivated,” “cultured,” as well as longer-form descriptions such as “grown directly from the cells of”, “cultivated from the cells of” and “produced using cellular aquaculture.”
The term “cell-based” was felt by the researchers to be the ultimate winner, because it was least confusing for consumers to understand, which was the focus of the study. Unlike the terms “cultured” and “cultivated”, which led to some mixing up with farmed fish, aquaculture or fermented fish products, “cell-based” made clear that the product was slaughter-free and developed from the cells of animals in a laboratory setting.
It also performed well because consumers cited greater food safety acceptance of the product, and reported higher expectations about the nutritional quality and taste of “cell-based seafood”.
Labelling has become a key debate for companies developing cultured proteins because of the novelty of the manufacturing process. While the end product is molecularly identical to real animal proteins, the technology means that animals do not need to be farmed and slaughtered in the making, and requires far fewer resources to produce.
Food techs hope to find a suitable name for the product to better convey to consumers the benefits of meat grown using cellular agriculture, from an ethical, environmental and food safety standpoint.
It is also vital for food techs to find the best labelling for cultivated food products before they reach commercialisation stage, as regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) typically require companies to name their products clearly with enough information about the characteristics of the food so the consumers know what they are purchasing.
In addition, because seafood in particular is a top allergen food, regulations dictate that labelling must be able to clearly communicate this to consumers. The consumer study found that across all terms and descriptions tested, the participants were able to recognise the presence of the allergen.
For BlueNalu, the startup backing the latest study, this question is top of mind. In a webinar hosted by the Institute for Food Technologists on July 14, where the research was presented, co-founder and CEO of the company Lou Cooperhouse revealed that his startup is now between roughly 12 to 18 months away from taking its cell-based seafood to market.
Meanwhile, Shiok Meats, a Singapore-based food tech that recently raised US$3 million in a bridge funding round is now working on setting up its first manufacturing plant to produce cultured shrimp, a major move towards commercialisation in the next two to three years.
“What you call something can evoke images, emotions, metaphors, meanings that can profoundly shape public perceptions and acceptance,” said Hallman during the webinar. “So what you call something matters.”
However, Hallman’s results are not consistent with prior studies on terminology. Previously, research conducted by the Good Food Institute (GFI) found that the term “cultivated meat” was the best description for these products, while “cell-based” did not survey well with the consumers.
It must also be noted that most research on consumer attitudes to terminology of cultivated products have been based on U.S. shoppers, and it may well be that individual markets respond differently to different terms.
In Japan, authorities are now pushing ahead with developing clear standards and guidelines for labelling and specifications of cell-based products as the country looks to bolster its food security amid the coronavirus, which has raised awareness of the vulnerabilities of an animal-centric food system.
This article’s title has been rephrased to better illustrate the conclusion of the study presented and to remove the reference to lab-grown, as many cellular agriculture products may not be grown in laboratories but rather produced in regulated food facilities.
This article was questioned based on a post published here, which disagreed that “cell-based” was the best term. Here’s our take. We believe that all research in this sector should be considered, especially given its nascent stage. While the Rutgers University study (Hallman, 2020) does find that “cultivated” scores highly on its perceived naturalness and “cell-based” fares less well on this front, the study is an empirical assessment between different terms/descriptions on labels according to several set criteria, one of which one of which the researchers viewed as crucial was the ability of consumers to understand and distinguish products from those already on the market and to signal allergenicity.
The GFI/Mattson study that finds “cultivated” may be a more suitable term for consumer acceptance also recognises that “cell-based” scores well for descriptiveness and differentiation. We believe that both studies on labelling for the alternative protein sector present findings on that are worth considering and reporting about. We also believe that consumer understanding is vital for cellular agriculture products – consumers need to know what they are purchasing and they need to “feel” they know what they are purchasing, which is why we think that reporting on the findings in the Rutgers study is important, as are the GFI/Mattson study’s findings.
Lead image courtesy of BlueNalu.