Dr. Bernadette Sütterlin: “The Focus Should Not Be on the Production Method.”

Dr. Bernadette Sütterlin
© Dr. Bernadette Sütterlin

So far, veganism has meant the absolute renunciation of meat. Thanks to the development of “laboratory meat” (so-called in-vitro meat), this could soon change. But though it sounds simple, most consumers will take some convincing. The research of Dr. Bernadette Sütterlin from the ETH in Zurich, which deals with the sustainability and acceptance of laboratory meat from the consumer’s point of view, also proves this. In this interview, we learned more about reactions to laboratory meat, possible stumbling blocks during its introduction and the future development of this segment.

How do people currently respond to the topic of laboratory meat?
As our studies have shown, acceptance of laboratory meat is currently very low. Compared to conventionally-produced meat, laboratory meat is perceived as more risky, and the willingness to consume cultured meat is very low – about half as high as with conventional meat. Driving forces are the perception of laboratory meat as unnatural and the disgust caused by this. Due to this negative perception, beneficial aspects of laboratory meat, such as greater eco-friendliness and reduced animal suffering, are largely ignored in the assessment.

What were the most astonishing results of your studies?
Our study results indicate that the negative perception of laboratory meat in relation to its naturalness can lead to a distorted assessment of the risks. The study participants felt that the risk of developing colon cancer due to high meat consumption was less acceptable for in vitro meat than for conventional meat. This means that identical risks are classified as less acceptable in connection with cultured meat than in connection with conventionally produced meat.

The effect cultivated meat has on perceptions of conventional meat is also astonishing. Descriptions of laboratory meat had the paradoxical effect of making people assess conventional meat more positively. In comparison with cultured meat, conventionally produced meat achieved the same high values as organic meat in terms of perceived naturalness and people’s willingness to consume it.

Organic, conventional, laboratory meat – what are consumers’ preferences?
For some years now, the trend has generally been towards a more conscious diet. Considerations related to eco-friendliness, health, ethical factors and lifestyle in general are increasingly being incorporated into food choices, and therefore more and more organic food is being consumed. Compared to conventional products, organic products are perceived as more environmentally friendly, healthier and tastier, and their nutritional value is estimated to be higher. As mentioned above, perceived naturalness plays an important role in assessing the risks and benefits of a production method and its acceptance. Organic meat is considered very natural, and conventional meat is somewhere in the midfield. Laboratory meat, on the other hand, is perceived as unnatural and therefore, despite its positive aspects in terms of eco-friendliness and animal welfare, preference is currently being given to organic and then conventional meat.

How will laboratory meat be able to assert itself in spite of this?
With new, unfamiliar technologies, consumers tend to be more critical than with familiar technologies, and generally assess the risks as higher and the benefits as lower. Laboratory meat, however, addresses the needs of consumers who do not eat meat for reasons of environmental issues and/or animal welfare, and may be a suitable alternative for them. In vitro meat could also help to meet the growing global demand for meat. If consumers are more familiar with laboratory meat and no longer associate it with unnaturalness, cultured meat could have a promising future.

What should suppliers of laboratory meat be aware of in order to create a positive attitude towards their products amongst consumers?
Communication is central to promoting and ensuring acceptance of laboratory meat. Communication in relation to laboratory meat should emphasise its similarities to conventionally-produced meat – both are derived from an animal’s muscle fibres – and focus on positive characteristics such as eco-friendliness and reduced animal suffering. The focus should not be on the production method, as biotechnology is automatically associated with the unnatural, which in turn has a negative effect on judgement and acceptance. When discussing production methods, a non-technical vocabulary that is as neutral as possible must be chosen. Terms such as “laboratory” or “artificial”, which in themselves have negative connotations and create an unnatural perception, should be avoided.

Do you think research and the public should have a positive attitude towards in vitro meat?
That depends on the perspective you look at it from. If the aim is to find more environmentally-friendly and animal-friendly meat production methods for existing and potential meat consumers, then in vitro meat is certainly an appropriate alternative. If the view is taken that meat consumption should be generally reduced, whether for environmental, health or ethical reasons, then laboratory meat contributes little to the solution.

How will the topic of laboratory meat develop over the next 1 to 3 years?
In addition to technical and regulatory hurdles, there are also some obstacles to consumer acceptance that need to be overcome before laboratory meat can establish itself on the market. At present, acceptance of cultured meat is very low. Because of its perceived unnatural nature, concerns about possible risks predominate and little weight is attached to the benefits. This perception and the convictions associated with it are deeply rooted and can’t be changed easily.