The term “cell-based” seems to be the best way to label seafood made from fish cells that are grown in a specialized medium and formed into products, according to a consumer study conducted by Rutgers University professor William Hallman and shared at a virtual conference Tuesday as part of the Institute for Food Technologists’ annual event. The research, which is set to be published in the Journal of Food Science, was funded by cell-based seafood company BlueNalu.
Hallman’s study evaluated consumer understanding, perceptions of health and safety, and willingness to buy tuna, shrimp and salmon that had different terminology describing its origin on its label. He studied consumers’ reactions to seven terms that could be used to describe the products — cell-based, cultivated, cell-cultured, cultured, produced using cellular aquaculture, grown directly from cells of the animal and cultivated from the cells of the animal — as well as two terms currently on labels describing product origin — wild-caught and farm-raised — and no descriptive term at all.
The study found none of the terms describing seafood grown from animal cells were found to be inappropriate, but most people had positive reactions to “cell-based” in terms of their initial response, how good they thought the product would taste, their interest in tasting it and likelihood to buy it, and whether they thought the products were safe for children to eat, Hallman said.
While we are still some time away from cell-based meat products being available to consumers, the day that it will be available is drawing closer, and it makes sense to determine what they should be called.
BlueNalu co-founder and CEO Lou Cooperhouse told the webinar audience that his company is currently between 12 and 18 months away from having a test product to go to markets. The company, which closed a $20 million funding round earlier this year, has been working to perfect and scale up the seafood it produces in order to get there.
Cooperhouse approached Hallman to research the best name — one that easily and succinctly communicates what the product is when it appears on a label — for the type of seafood BlueNalu is producing. There has been a lot of discussion — but no clear-cut answers — on what kind of common name meat and poultry that is produced in a similar way should have. But seafood is different in that it is only regulated by the FDA, while cell-cultured meat and poultry will be jointly regulated by FDA and USDA. Seafood also is a top allergen, meaning FDA requires any labeling to clearly communicate its presence to consumers.
Hallman, who has done research on consumer acceptance of new technology and chaired the FDA’s Risk Communications Advisory Panel, as well as a 2014 FDA panel on advice to give pregnant women about seafood consumption, said this research is vital from both a regulatory and commercial standpoint.
“I know that names are really important,” Hallman said during his IFT presentation. “What you call something can evoke images, emotions, metaphors, meanings that can profoundly shape public perceptions and acceptance. So what you call something matters.”
Hallman tested relevant terms that are in use now. However, he did not consider terms that are considered derogatory to either meat produced by growing cells — including “lab-grown” or “fake” — or meat produced by conventional agriculture — like “clean” or “slaughter-free.” He mocked up product labels using the different terminology, as well as terminology used for seafood origin that is on labels today, and showed them to 3,186 consumers who represented different ages, gender, income and education levels and races.
In the research, which took place in February and March, consumers considered a randomly selected label by looking at it several times and sharing their understanding and feeling of the term on it. If they were shown a label that used one of the terms to describe meat produced without an animal, the term was actually defined for them at the end of the research.
The research found common names using the word cell — including cell-based and cultivated from the cells of — did the best in communicating to consumers that the product was created in a different way than today’s farm-raised or wild-caught seafood. More than half of consumers identified these products as produced in a different way. However, many thought that terms similar to those used in conventional farming — “cultivated” and “produced by cellular aquaculture” — actually meant the seafood was farm-raised.
For many of the terms, consumers had a slightly positive reaction and said the seafood would be moderately nutritious. The study found consumers would be equally interested in tasting seafood labeled as wild-caught, farm-raised, cell-based and produced by cellular aquaculture. Consumers also were equally likely to purchase seafood labeled as wild-caught, farm-raised, cell-based, cultivated, cultured and produced by cellular aquaculture.
Because of the lack of confusion and slightly more favorable scores, Hallman said cell-based is the best term for this kind of seafood, though cell-cultured is another option. He plans to do a wider study to determine preference between those two terms.
Cell-based and cell-cultured have become the most common ways to refer to any sort of animal meat made this way, so it is not surprising that the results came out this way. However, Hallman cautioned these particular results only pertain to seafood.
“One would think that it would generalize to meat and poultry and egg products,” he said. “But fundamentally, we need to test that. We need to test those these particular names attached to those particular products.”
Hallman is not alone in terminology research for these new products. The Good Food Institute has been following the issue for the last several years. The group published study results last year indicating “cultivated meat” was the best way to describe the products. “Cell-based,” though seen as accurate, did not poll well with consumers — but it is a term that many companies have continued to use to describe their work.
Though cell-based meat is likely to be served outside of the United States first — Just has told Food Dive it is ready to market cell-based chicken nuggets as soon as it gets regulatory approval, and Israel-based Future Meat Technologies plans to have cell-based meat on the market in its home country next year — regulations and consumers here are unique. However, once there is actual market data to see, sales and consumer response elsewhere may inform companies and regulators just as much as this research about what these products should be called.