Semicopia

Cows, cells and the performance of making ‘meat’

by Alexandra Sexton

Animal meat is an ambiguous good.1 This ambiguity stems from it existing simultaneously as both “animal flesh and de-animalized commodity”.2 It also manifests in our ability to feel affection to living animals, even those raised for slaughter, while also repeatedly disassociating this from the meat on our plates. And meat is becoming ever more ambiguous in terms of its place in the human diet: where once it was deemed “necessary, normal and natural”,3 the value of meat as a human food is now under scrutiny as we face an increasingly food-insecure world, rising protein demand and the brutal realities of modern, intensive meat production.

Aerial of cattle on huge feedlot - photo: NARA

If conventional meat is an ambiguous good, what then should we make of in-vitro meat? The idea of meat grown in cell culture outside of the animal body (i.e. in-vitro) aims to address some of the ambiguities of its conventional counterpart, though for many it presents an even more “ambiguous solution to an ambiguous problem”.4 As Ben Wurgaft highlights elsewhere in this publication, in-vitro or cultured meat currently exists as both reality and imagination: it exists in promises and speculation of how it might develop as an end product and the benefits it could potentially provide the world. It also exists in a small number of material forms, the most renowned being a burger presented by Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University at a media event in 2013. As well as blurring the line between material and promissory, cultured meat also confuses the boundaries of what counts as ‘food’. One of the prominent discourses that has arisen from the idea of this innovation has centred on its edibility. More than just speculating whether people will actively choose it over conventional livestock products, this question concerns whether it will in fact be accepted as an edible substance – that is, will people see it as food? The strong visceral reactions of participants in academic studies and its popular label as ‘Frankenfood’ in the media suggest that many barriers currently exist to realising this goal.5 It appears that the idea of cultured meat is challenging the very notion of what food is to people, and indeed what they think it should be.

To understand how these obstacles are being addressed by those developing cultured meat, it is necessary to first explore how conventional meat becomes ‘food’ in public thinking. The ways in which meat products are materially and discursively constructed through particular terminology, imagery and industry practices will be discussed, a process that Evans & Miele describe as a conscious ‘presenting’ and ‘absenting’ of certain factors to the end consumer.6 This essay will then conclude by considering the ways in which cultured meat has been perceived by the public to date and how strategies of presenting and absenting are being implemented by its advocates to increase acceptance of this product as ‘food’.

Lively bodies and ambiguous goods

Animal meat exists as many things to many people. The threat of spiritual and physical pollution from animal products has featured prominently in numerous cultural and religious systems around the world; indeed, the practices of abstaining from certain meats (e.g. pork) or avoiding those not prepared in specific ways (e.g. halal or kosher) remain prevalent to this day.7 In such contexts the ‘liveliness’ of the animal poses a risk to the eater – its history as a living being brings with it the threat of ingesting its dirtiness, or being polluted by its base characteristics. Within other contexts however, the idea that we can assimilate the attributes of an animal through consuming its flesh is deemed a highly desirable and culturally valuable process. Anthropologists have documented many instances of the ritualistic eating of animals as a way of acquiring specific qualities, from strength to fertility, eyesight to courage.8 The increasing westernisation of global diets towards higher meat consumption also reveals its cultural association with more progressive, desirable lifestyles.9 And of course not only has meat consumption been viewed as beneficial to healthy nutrition, it has also long been deemed an essential component. From dietary guidelines to food policy, animal meat has become a staple ingredient in the modern diet and one we have been encouraged to consume and crave on a daily basis.10

The success of steering public perception to see meat less as ‘animal’ and more as ‘food’ has been the result of important evolutions both within and external to the meat industry. A key event that began our disassociation of meat from animal bodies occurred in the late eighteenth century when abattoirs were relocated outside of European cities.11 This movement dramatically reduced the public’s first-hand interaction with the messier, more ‘bodily’ processes of meat production which until then had been a part of the everyday urban landscape. The rearing of animals has also become increasingly concentrated away from domestic and small-scale contexts in favour of commercial and typically non-public facilities. Furthermore, in many countries the livestock industry has undergone important changes to how it processes animals. Examples include the development of specialist facilities, standardised procedures and food safety regulations (e.g. HACCP), all of which are intended to minimise and control the risks involved in turning living bodies into human food.12

As a consequence of these factors, meat has become a product that simply appears in butchers’ shops or on supermarket shelves for many modern consumers. Sometimes it may loosely resemble the animal it was once a part of – such as a whole side of pig or a leg of lamb – but even in these cases it is often devoid of the messier components such as blood and organs. The majority of meat products today are now bloodless, skinless, boneless and often diced into abstract shapes – in short, any reference to the former living body is removed.

In addition to the meat itself becoming sanitised, the imagery and language around it has undergone a similar process. Images and graphic descriptions of animal slaughtering are not common choices for the packaging of meat products; instead they are frequently adorned with bucolic scenes, careful terminology (‘free-range’, ‘organic’, ‘hand-reared’) and references to the ‘happiness’ of the animals and the care of the farmers. Moreover, the promotion of meat in commercials and other forms of corporate advertising has been strategic in reinforcing and perpetuating its many cultural symbolisms. The advertising of fast food companies provides a notable example of promoting meat consumption as the key to power (both physical and cultural), as well as representing Man’s dominance over Nature.13 Protein-based sports supplements regularly allude to the strength of particular animals as a benchmark for what their consumers can achieve. Sexual references are also frequent within these contexts: a quick internet search of Carl’s Jr commercials (a popular burger chain in the US) reveals how sex and meat have become powerful partners in the world of meat advertising, an alliance that often portrays meat consumption as a form of sexual power over women and the ultimate symbol of virility.14

All of these factors are important components in the edibility formation of animal meat. As Evans & Miele describe, the performance of ‘presenting’ and ‘absenting’ particular information about foods has become a prominent part of the food system and significantly shapes how people understand the products they consume.15 In the case of meat, this performance occurs in multiple places and through diverse platforms, from the supermarket aisles to restaurants, corporate advertising to dietary guidelines. As a result rather than eating animals we instead eat ‘recommended doses of protein’ and ‘ethically-produced goods’; we eat our way to improved health, desired cultural identities and in support of livelihoods; and, we eat the end products of a regulated and ‘expert’ industry. In short, we consume the idea of meat that we want to consume, the idea that transforms it from animal to edible.16

Frankenfood, unpacked

How then, does cultured meat fit into this picture? In what forms does it exist in public thinking, and what strategies have been involved in its edibility formation to date? It is fair to say that the idea of cultured meat has evoked a diverse range of reactions, from intrigue and hope to powerful, visceral feelings of disgust. To begin unpacking the latter – often termed the ‘yuck factor’ – let us first turn to an important attribute that cultured meat currently lacks: a food culture. A powerful component of a food’s edibility formation is possessing a history of human consumption. This is evident in the promotion and successful adoption of other alternative proteins, such as edible insects and the plant-based proteins of Hampton Creek.17 Despite lacking a mainstream food culture in western nations today, edible insects have a long history in areas such as Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. This history is frequently emphasised by those seeking to make entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) a worldwide practice and over recent years the market for insect-based products has expanded significantly in western nations. Similarly, the fact that Hampton Creek use pea protein and other familiar plant sources in their products has significantly helped them become accepted as ‘food’ by their customers. The already established traditions of eating pea plants and growing agricultural crops for food has meant fewer obstacles have been faced in convincing the public to see Hampton Creek products as edible. In addition to the ingredients used, the familiar aesthetics and functionality of the end products for both Hampton Creek (e.g. mayonnaise and cookie dough) and many edible insect companies (e.g. protein bars, cookies, crackers) have also been critical to their edibility formation process.

CULTURED MEAT

EDIBLE INSECTS

PRESENTED

ABSENTED

PRESENTED

ABSENTED

Reference to raw material (i.e. animal)

Explicit references to lab-based origin in certain contexts (e.g. 'cultured' instead of 'in-vitro' meat)

High in protein and other nutrients

Reference to raw material (i.e. whole insects; either completely or just in whole form)

Familiar production processes (e.g. fermenting, brewing)

Lack of history as human food product

Familiar production processes (e.g. animal rearing)

Negative cultural references (e.g. 'pests', 'dirty', 'scary')

Familiar end products (e.g. burger) and cooking techniques

Explicit references to Big Tech investors in certain contexts

Familiar end products (e.g. protein bars, powders and snacks)

Methods of slaughter (usually freezing)

Ability to tailor-make nutritional profiles of meat products (e.g. high protein, low fat, high iron)

The potential large-scale shift of meat production away from agricultural sector to highly specialised, biotechnological sector

Potential to lessen environmental impacts and improve healthiness of meat products

Photographs of insects or insect farms on packaging (if any images of insects appear they are usually drawn and relatively abstract)

Potential to eliminate animal slaughter, lessen environmental impacts and improve healthiness of meat products

Long history of human consumption in cultures around the world

Table 1: Examples of 'Presented' and 'Absented' Factors related to Cultured Meat and Edible Insects

The lack of a history of human consumption is thus a key component of cultured meat’s yuck factor. Adding further ‘yuck’ is the fact that the procedures, equipment and skillsets involved in cultured meat are all largely rooted in medical and biotechnological fields. Despite the increasing industrialisation of modern agriculture, it appears that stem cells and synthetic biologists are a step too far beyond the idea of what constitutes meat for many people, and what they think it should entail. For many people, these elements don’t add up to create edible food and instead the end product is seen as ‘unnatural’, ‘abnormal’, ‘unsafe’, ‘Frankenfood’. For some it also represents a step towards a dystopian future of lost livelihoods and “soulless meat”, and the latest attempt to commoditise the natural world and align it to neoliberal agendas.18

In response to these perceptions, a number of developments within the sector have worked to strengthen the edibility formation of cultured meat. Firstly, cultured meat was introduced to the world in the form of a burger. This decision was in part determined by the technological limits of the time: by then Post’s team were able to produce sheets of muscle cells which were more suited to simulating minced meat than whole cuts such as steaks or fillets. Yet rather than present the sample in sheets, a burger was chosen instead, complete with bread bun and salad. It was prepared by a celebrity chef with familiar cooking methods and eaten with familiar utensils (knife and fork). The overall format of the event also reflected that of a mainstream television cooking show with a chef preparing the food for a panel of tasters in front of a live audience.

So, why a burger? Indeed, the original plan had been to present the sample to a Netherlands-based audience in the form of a sausage (also a strategic choice given the history of sausages as a traditional and popular meat product in the Netherlands). Yet this was before Google co-founder Sergey Brin became involved in the project, after which the location of the tasting event changed first to the US and then, due to logistical reasons, to the UK. Within these national contexts the burger possesses an established and highly popular history as a foodstuff – it is associated with convenience, low cost, economic freedom, western lifestyles and enjoyable taste.19 This decision, along with the whole performance of the tasting event, thus played key roles in the edibility formation of cultured meat; they all worked to transform what could have been seen merely as a science experiment or technological innovation into ‘food’.

As well as attending to the presentation of the end product, careful attention has also been focussed on the design of information around cultured meat. In this context we can examine what has been ‘presented’ and ‘absented’ with regards to this novel product.20 A notable example of the former is the emphasis of the animal behind the cultured meat process. In much of the earlier promotional materials it is notable how frequently an image of an animal – and importantly a living animal – is depicted as the source of the cells for cultured meat. Not only does this highlight the benefit of no longer requiring animal slaughter, but it also works to emphasise that the same raw material as conventional meat is being used (albeit at the cellular level). This is an important contribution to the edibility formation of cultured meat: as we saw with edible insects and plant-based proteins, if the raw material is familiar and has a history as a foodstuff then acceptance of the end product as edible can be increased.

The public distrust and anxiety regarding the production methods of cultured meat has also led to a re-designing of language used by the sector. Rather than absenting its methods completely as with other innovative food products (e.g. GMOs), cultured meat advocates instead regularly liken the process to fermentation or brewing, both of which are familiar and popular practices within many food cultures. This shift away from the perceived scariness of cultured meat’s technological roots can also be seen in the transition away from labels such as in-vitro or lab-grown to cultured in promotional materials.

Despite a distinct yuck factor currently existing around cultured meat, it must be noted that public perception of this alternative protein is complex, ever-changing and highly dependent on both the individual and the contexts within which it is discussed.21 As we have seen, there are very real concerns regarding the impacts it could bring to the world and debates remain over whether we should instead be encouraging dietary trends away from meat altogether.22 This innovation has challenged our present understandings of what counts as ‘food’ whilst also challenging what this category should include in the future, particularly as we face the growing environmental, ethical and human health issues of global meat consumption. While cultured meat remains in this ambiguous territory it is important to pay attention to the ways in which it is becoming food – i.e. which cultural symbolisms are being drawn upon, what discursive techniques utilised, what political dynamics created and, importantly, which factors are being presented and absented to the consumer. Only by examining how and why it is being made into ‘meat’ in these ways will we fully understand the potential of cultured meat to contribute to a more sustainable and food-secure future, as well as the likelihood of it becoming accepted as ‘food’ at the consumer level.


  1. Robert M. Chiles, “Intertwined Ambiguities: Meat, In Vitro Meat, and the Ideological Construction of the Marketplace”, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, V. 12, 2013, pp.472-482.

  2. Chiles, p.473.

  3. Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, (Newburyport: Red Wheel/Weiser/Conari, 2009).

  4. Chiles, p.473.

  5. Cor van der Weele & Clemens Driessen, “Emerging Profiles for Cultured Meat; Ethics through and as Design,” Animals, V. 3, N. 3, 2013, pp. 647-662; Linnea Laestadius, “Public Perceptions of the Ethics of In-vitro Meat: Determining an Appropriate Course of Action”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, forthcoming; Cara Santa Maria, “In Vitro Meat: Will ‘Frankenfood’ Save the Planet or Just Gross out Consumers?”, HuffPost Science, 2012,

    (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/05/in-vitro-meat_n_1185128.html).

  6. A. B. Evans & Mara Miele, “Between Food and Flesh: How Animals are Made to Matter (or not to Matter) within Food Consumption Practices”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, V. 28, N. 4, 2012, pp.298-314.

  7. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 2002).

  8. Frederick J. Simoons, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).

  9. Jennifer Parker Talwar, Fast Food, Fast Track: Immigrants, Big Business, and the American Dream (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003).

  10. Recently dietary guidelines and public health discourses have begun to reassess the prominence of meat in public diets, though attention has largely been focussed on red and processed meats rather than a call for overall reduced consumption. See the World Health Organisation’s recent advice on the subject (http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/).

  11. Noëlie Vialles, Animal to Edible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  12. The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) is a food safety management system designed to analyse and control the chemical, physical and biological hazards of food production, from raw material to the consumption of the end product. See also Vialles, 2002.

  13. Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol (London: Routledge, 2004).

  14. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1990).

  15. Evans & Miele, 2012.

  16. Vialles, 2002.

  17. Based in San Francisco, Hampton Creek aims to eliminate the need for industrial egg farming by producing plant-based alternatives to egg protein. To date their products include a range of mayonnaises and cookie dough, and current stockists include major US retailers such as Target, Walmart and Whole Foods.

  18. van der Weele & Driessen, 2013.

  19. Parker Talwar, 2003.

  20. Evans & Miele, 2012.

  21. van der Weele & Driessen, 2013; see also Wim Verbeke, Pierre Sans & Ellen J. Van Loo, “Challenges and Prospects for Consumer Acceptance of Cultured Meat”, Journal of Integrative Agriculture, V. 14, N. 2, 2015, pp.285-294.

  22. Laura Wellesley, Catherine Happer & Antony Froggatt “Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption”, Chatham House Report, November 2015.