Study finds “cell-cultured” or “cell-based” best label for lab-grown meat

The lab-growing process used by IntegriCulture Inc., one of the companies involved in cell-based seafood production.

Researchers at Rutgers University exploring the issue of what lab-grown meat products should be called to differentiate them from their traditional livestock counterparts have landed on the terms “cell-based” or “cell-cultured.”

The labeling issue has more at stake than just being accurate: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture require food products to have a “common or usual name” on their labels so consumers can make informed choices, but the fast-growing industry has yet to settle on a term on its own.

According to a new Rutgers study published in the Journal of Food Science, the terms “cell-based” or “cell-cultured” should be used from here on out. In an online study a representative sample of 1,200 consumers evaluated packages of Atlantic salmon designed to mimic those found in grocery stores, labeled with “cell-based seafood” or “cell-cultured seafood.”

The names were evaluated using five criteria to test their ability to meet FDA labeling regulations and producers’ needs to sell their products. The criteria included each term’s ability to help consumers distinguish cell-cultured seafood from wild and farmed fish; to signal its potential as an allergen; to be seen as an appropriate term for the product; to not disparage cell-cultured or conventional products; and to not evoke thoughts, images, or emotions that the products aren’t safe, healthy, or nutritious.

“The results suggest that both ‘cell-based seafood’ and ‘cell-cultured seafood’ meet FDA regulations,” said William Hallman, a professor who chairs Rutgers' Department of Human Ecology. “They help the majority of consumers understand that the new products are produced in a different way from the ‘wild-caught’ and ‘farm-raised’ fish they may already be buying. At the same time, consumers also recognized that if they are allergic to seafood, they shouldn’t eat the product.”

A common term is needed both to meet FDA labeling regulations, and to label the expanding lab-grown seafood products in a consistent manner across platforms. Without a common label, producers could struggle to grow a knowledgeable customer-base that understands what the products are.

“Widespread adoption and consistent use of a single ‘common or usual name’ for ‘cell-based’ seafood, meat, poultry, and other products by the food industry, regulators, journalists, marketers, environmental, consumer, animal rights advocates, and other key stakeholders would help shape public perceptions and understanding of this rapidly advancing technology and its products,” the report said.

It has been clear for years that cell-cultured or cell-based seafood would face some form of labeling fight, and in some areas, it already has. Missouri passed a law barring companies from misrepresenting a product as meat if it is not derived from harvest-production livestock or poultry, and similar bills are being considered in other states.

The National Fisheries Institute, which represents the U.S. seafood industry, and the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation both called on the U.S. FDA to ensure that cell-based seafood is properly labeled.

“Although cell-cultured seafood products are not yet on the market, in the U.S. or globally, these products are rapidly approaching commercialization,” a joint letter from the two agencies states. “To continue to stand as a leader at the forefront of food innovation, the United States should continue the work done thus far to foster a regulatory pathway for cell-cultured products in the U.S. A critical component of this is ensuring a labeling framework that ensures consumer transparency, supports consumer choice, and creates a fair, non-disparaging playing field across products.”

The letter’s assertion that cell-based products, especially seafood products, are approaching commercialization is reflected in big companies backing the products. Cell-based seafood firm BlueNalu recently signed memorandums of understanding with both the Mitsubishi Corporation and Thai Union to accelerate the rollout of its cell-based products. Thai Union has also invested in Aleph Farms – another cell-based meat producer – showcasing the company’s push to enter the developing market.

Researchers said getting companies to adopt the same phrase will both aid consumers in understanding the nature of the product they’re purchasing, and help meet regulatory guidelines. It’s just a matter of the industry picking one and settling on it, Hallman said.

“Both names work well,” he said. “The key is to choose a single term and to get everyone to adopt it. That will reduce confusion and ultimately help consumers understand what they are buying.”  

Photo courtesy of IntegriCulture Inc.


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