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Can a Rebranding Effort Make In-Vitro Meat Appetizing?

Samantha Henig has challenged designers to make lab-grown meat palatable to consumers. Proballs and spaghetti, anyone?

Mary E. Lease, a Kansas reformer, once exhorted farmers to raise less corn and more hell, and, in 1893, she published a little-known essay for The Chicago World’s Fair entitled "Improvements So Extraordinary the World Will Shudder." Her improvements included interplanetary communication, Sunday excursions to the moon, and an all-purpose meal in a pill. As historian Warren Belasco explains in Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food:


She saw the pill as a way to liberate both women and animals. With food synthesized in laboratories, there would be no need for women to be enslaved in kitchens, and "the slaughter of animals—the appetite for flesh meat that has left the world reeking with blood and bestialized humanity—will be one of the shuddering horrors of the past." In Lease's vision of 1993, slaughterhouses would be converted into "conservatories and beds of bloom."

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We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer to divorcing burgers and sausages from live cows or pigs. Scientists have engineered faster-growing salmon and drug-producing goats and plants than can ward off insects and pesticides. And the promise of raising meat in a lab could free us from “the reek of blood.” It could mean cheaper animal protein with a smaller carbon footprint, better animal welfare, and maybe even healthier meats. Mark Post, an angiogeneticist from the Netherlands, told Michael Specter in The New Yorker:

"I can well envision a scenario where your doctor would prescribe hamburgers rather than prohibit them. The science is not simple and there are hurdles that remain. But I have no doubt we will get there."

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Aside from the nagging moral and ethical issues of supplementing animals with a lab product, the biggest challenge in bringing beaker bacon, Petri pork, or steak-flavored Jell-O to market may come down to consumers' perceptions. Right now, Specter writes, lab meat looks like mouse turds. Not appetizing. Even if the actual substance itself is less dangerous than toxic chemicals you're already eating in other foods, disgust may derail its potential. As Paul Bloom, an expert in moral psychology, previously explained to Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe:

"You wouldn't eat arsenic and you wouldn't eat a dog turd, but even though eating arsenic is worse for you, the dog turd gives rise to the distinct response."

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Clearly, in vitro meat won't fly off the shelves if we're thinking about mouse turds, so The New Yorker’s Samantha Henig recently put out a call to designers to rebrand manufactured meats. After all, Henig says, we’ve come a long way in rebranding other things that once turned up our noses, like stinky fermented beans (as tofu) and fermented fish (as ketchup), why not try the same thing for in vitro meat? Jennifer Kinon and Bobby C. Martin, Jr., at Original Champions of Design, developed the concept of pro-tivore:

Now, it's been over a century that lab-grown meats have been heralded as the future of food and if carneries really can crank out cultured meats, what do you think, would you ever pick up a package of Pro-ribs or Profurter?

Top photo: Exterior of Woman's Building, while under construction, at World's Fair, Chicago, Illinois via Library of Congress. Middle photo: Living culture of the Rous chicken sarcoma, via “Cultivation of Tissues in Vitro and Its Technique” ©1911, The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research New York. Bottom design by Original Champions of Design via The New Yorker.