Clean meat — my preferred term, for reasons that will become clear, for meat grown from cells taken from an animal — has enormous potential for upending the horror-show that is animal agriculture. Clean meat uses just a fraction of the resources necessary for conventionally produced meat, and the process of harvesting cells from a living animal can be done in a truly painless fashion. Take, for example, this video describing JUST’s process of producing clean meat, supposedly coming to shelves soon.
The benefits are clear, and no one in their right mind would be opposed to this. Omnivores and carnivores alike can be delighted not only that a food group they supposedly cannot forego will be produced cruelty-free, but that the industry of clean meat will open all sorts of doors for customizable meat in terms of taste, texture, and nutritional value. Us vegans, too, can rejoice in the fact that countless animals will be saved, and the impact of animal agriculture on the planet will be a thing of the past.
It can be tempting to advocate for clean meat on these ethical and environmental grounds. After all, these are the reasons we went vegan, and they’re quite solid reasons to do so. But while reducing animal cruelty and climate change may be compelling reasons for us to abstain from animal products, preliminary research suggests that advocating for clean meat on these grounds may not be the most effective tactic.
Before that, it’s important to consider how many people would actually be willing to try clean meat.
What Do People Think of Clean Meat?
- A survey conducted in March of 2012 found that 62% of the British public stated that they ‘would probably not eat’ clean meat. Just 19% said they ‘probably would.’
- A December 2017 poll found that 30% of individuals in Hong Kong would be open to trying clean meat, while 50% were against trying it. 52% in Vietnam would try it, while 34% of Thai and 33% of Indonesian consumers would.
- A 2018 Michigan State University study found that 33% of respondents were likely to try clean meat.
- A study conducted by Faunalytics in January/February 2018 found that 66% of people were willing to try clean meat.
- A February 2018 poll found that 41% of Brits think we’ll be eating clean meat within a decade.
- A study conducted in Italy and published in April 2019 reported that 54% of respondents would try clean meat.
- A study published in 2019 found that approximately 76% of American respondents were willing to try clean meat. That figure was more than 90% among respondents in China, and approximately 85% in among respondents in India.
Given that there wasn’t much research on this question prior to 2017, it’s hard to determine if there has been an upward trend in acceptance of clean meat over the years. Importantly, reported willingness to try clean meat is likely influenced by familiarity with the topic; research involving participants learning about clean meat for the first time as a result of their participation in the study may actually be capturing respondents’ reflexive gut reaction to the idea of clean meat, whereas they may change their opinion on it over time.
Nonetheless, the survey results reported above provide some insight into how the public feels about clean meat. I suspect that these numbers will increase dramatically once clean meat becomes available and people try it. Then questions like these will be far less hypothetical.
How to Advocate for Clean Meat
Researchers have already begun looking into how best to market clean meat. This involves exploring the psychological mechanisms at play in those absolutely opposed to clean meat. It also involves trying out different descriptions of what clean meat is, and testing out different terms (e.g., “cultured meat” versus “lab-grown meat” versus “clean meat”). Not only can companies use this information to market their products to ensure that the greatest number possible purchases them, but we can also use this information to advocate for people to switch from conventional meat to clean meat, a switch that would save animal lives.
One psychological mechanism that we are all familiar with is the naturalistic bias: people have a tendency to believe that what is natural is good, and things that are unnatural are bad. Omnivores often fall victim to this bias when they deploy “eating meat is natural,” intended as a defense of their diet. People also fall victim to this when faced with a choice between conventional meat and clean meat: natural is good, and unnatural is bad, so conventional meat is preferable to clean meat.
One study measured how participant support for clean meat changed as a function of messaging, finding that emphasizing the disgusting aspects of conventional meat was more effective than health-related messaging and as effective as moral messaging.
Another study produced similar results, finding that messaging significantly influences participant approval of clean meat. The Faunalytics study found that arguing that clean meat is natural or that naturalness is unimportant was not effective, but emphasizing how unnatural conventional meat is — on account of the use of antibiotics, hormones, etc. — was “the most effective way to increase acceptance of clean meat.”
Relatedly, a recent study (preprint here) found that, among other things, higher scores on subscales of disgust sensitivity relating to food and hygiene were strong predictors of participants’ absolute opposition to clean meat. Another found that an argument that conventional meat is unnatural was significantly more effective than the other three arguments: that clean meat is natural, that naturalness is unimportant, and that clean meat is beneficial (without mentioning naturalness).
Other factors are certainly important, like cost, but one thing is clear: people follow their taste buds, and they don’t want foods that they find disgusting.
Also, a study examining public perceptions of clean meat under different labels — including ‘lab grown meat’ and ‘cultured meat’ — found that ‘clean meat’ and ‘animal free meat’ resulted in more positive attitudes. Since ‘animal free meat’ is a clunky term, and since ‘clean meat’ helps establish a contrast to conventional meat — which is anything but clean — it’s my term of choice.
So there we have it. Clean meat has the potential to end animal agriculture, but only so far as it’s accepted by the general population as on par with or better than meat. In order to ensure that as many people as possible will be willing to replace conventional meat with clean meat, we should advocate for clean meat by highlighting the disgusting aspects of conventional meat. And given that those absolutely opposed to clean meat appear to be in part motivated by their sensitivity to disgust, this messaging might work to open their minds, too.
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