An impressive public relations event took place in London on Aug. 5. The goal was to introduce a new food technology called “cultured beef” to consumers and, at least initially, it appears to have been a success. The event was a textbook case in how a complex and possibly controversial technology may be introduced with a focus on minimizing consumer confusion or concern.
The setting and even the end product were simple. In front of more than 200 gathered media representatives, two volunteers sat on a stage at a kitchen counter while a hamburger patty made from cultured beef was prepared using such household ingredients as salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, red beet juice and saffron. The patty was cooked, the two volunteers then ate the finished product and gave their opinions about its taste and quality.
The volunteers, a Chicago-based author who has written extensively about the future of food and an Austrian food researcher, said after tasting the patty that the product needs work. While the texture is similar to traditionally raised beef, they described the cultured patty as dry. The dryness of the product is associated with a lack of fat.
Cultured beef, which also is referred to as in vitro beef or test tube beef, is made by collecting muscle cells from a cow and placing them in a nutrient solution to create muscle tissue. The tissue is grown by placing the cells in a ring around a hub of gel. The muscle cells grow into small strands of meat, and an estimated 20,000 strands are needed to make one 5-oz patty.
The event’s organizers did a masterful job communicating the safety and potential benefits of the technology. The tasting and product review demonstrated the safety of the cultured beef concept, and the lead researcher on the project made sure it was understood the technology is more than just another food product.
“What we are going to attempt is important because I hope it will show cultured beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces,” said Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, who developed the processes that led to the creation of cultured beef.
The problems Dr. Post hopes the technology will help alleviate include hunger and climate change. As the world population continues to grow and is estimated to reach 9 billion people by 2050, it is believed that current livestock raising processes will not be able to match the growing demand for protein. Since producing cultured beef does not require feedstuffs to grow an animal and eliminates the waste produced by the animals, there is also a perceived environmental benefit to the technology.
Commercial production of cultured beef is at least 10 years to 20 years away, said Dr. Post. There are numerous hurdles that must be overcome before products are ready for the consumer market.
The press event had three goals — to introduce the cultured beef concept to consumers, prove that it is viable, and generate interest from parties that may be willing to provide capital for future research and production. One early financial backer referred to often during the event and in media coverage of the event is Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, Inc.
After watching so many innovative food and beverage ingredient technologies blasted by wave after wave of misinformation and unfounded attacks, it is heartening to see a concept like cultured beef be embraced in the early stages of development. Criticisms may eventually arise, but for the moment it is clear simple, effective communication of a concept’s benefits may generate a favorable response.