These views were detailed in a new study that aimed to investigate how both the public and experts perceive the risks and benefits of cultured meat on individual and societal levels. In addition, it sought to compare the mental models of the public and experts, identifying similarities and differences in their perceptions.
Researchers undertook four distinct online focus group discussions (FGDs) conducted between February and April 2022. Three FGDs involved participants from the general public, while the fourth included cultured meat experts. Each session, lasting approximately two hours, comprised nine to eleven participants.
Given Singapore's heavy reliance on imported food and its active promotion of novel food technology industries, including cultured meat, the market for such innovative foods is expanding, attracting more companies to the field.
While previous research emphasises health and safety concerns as key factors contributing to the rejection of novel food products, there is a gap in understanding public perceptions at both personal and societal levels in non-Western contexts like Singapore.
29 members of the public attended the FGDs. They were categorised into Millennials (aged 21 to 41), Generation X (aged 42 to 57), and Baby Boomers (aged 58 to 75). Separately, 11 scientists and assistant professors (and above) from research institutes and academia participated in the expert FGD.
Public perceptions of cultured meat
During focus group discussions, participants highlighted two main aspects of personal health benefits from cultured meat: functional foods and enhanced food safety. Some expressed the belief that cultured meat could be engineered to be more nutritious and healthier than conventional meat.
A key societal benefit identified was food security, as participants suggested that cultured meat could enhance Singapore's self-sufficiency by reducing reliance on imported meat, diversifying food sources, and addressing supply chain vulnerabilities.
Some participants recognised the potential of cultured meat to address global food shortages and combat malnutrition in developing countries. Economic benefits were emphasised, including the reduction of meat imports, increased foreign direct investments, and job creation within the cultured meat industry.
Land use efficiency emerged as a significant advantage, with participants recognising cultured meat's potential to address Singapore's land scarcity challenges due to its lower land requirements compared to conventional meat production.
Cultured meat was also perceived as an environmentally friendlier alternative, and participants highlighted the moral benefit of improved animal welfare.
When assessing the health implications of cultured meat, many participants expressed concerns about potential long-term effects on the human body and apprehensions regarding the presence of preservatives and chemical additives, perceiving them as potential health risks.
Concerns were voiced about the perceived higher cost of cultured meat compared to conventional options, viewed as a financial risk that could deter consumer willingness. More importantly, participants noted that specific racial and religious communities in Singapore, such as those adhering to strict dietary restrictions may encounter difficulties in accepting cultured meat.
This potential challenge stressed the importance of transparency and obtaining approval or certification to bolster acceptance among a diverse population.
Expert perceptions of cultured meat
The predominant theme made by expert participants revolved around the potential benefits food security.
In scenarios where environmental or climate changes might restrict the availability of traditional food sources in Singapore, cultured meat could emerge as a viable alternative, ensuring the ongoing continuity of food production.
Expert participants also raised concerns about the risk of cultured meat to personal health, highlighting the technology's current immaturity despite regulatory approval for some products in Singapore.
Affordability was considered from an industry perspective, with experts expressing concerns about the potential reluctance of consumers if cultured meat is significantly more expensive than conventional options, posing a barrier to widespread adoption.
Investment risks were also noted, with the current limited acceptance of cultured meat among Singaporeans viewed as a challenging landscape for the industry. Vegetarians were identified as a group unlikely to embrace cultured meat, further complicating its market potential.
Misconceptions and differences
The FGDs uncovered shared perspectives between the public and experts concerning personal health benefits, expanded food options, and enhanced societal food security. At the same time, distinct differences emerged. The public held a broader view of both societal-level risks and benefits compared to the more focused approach of the experts.
The comparison also unveiled certain misconceptions among the public about cultured meat. Notably, some individuals mistakenly equated cultured meat with plant-based alternatives, such as proteins derived from plants like soybean
Additionally, while the public perceived cultured meat as environmentally beneficial, experts expressed scepticism regarding these environmental benefits, citing insufficient scientific evidence available.
“…..the utilization of focus group discussions in our study yielded more comprehensive information and elucidations regarding people’s interpretations of the risks and benefits of cultured meat.” The researchers wrote.
“These findings shed light on unique considerations that have not been extensively explored in previous studies on public perceptions of cultured meat.”
Source: PLOS One
Exploring the general public’s and experts’ risk and benefit perceptions of cultured meat in Singapore: A mental models approach
Authors: Shirley S. Ho, Mengxue Ou, and Zhing Ting Ong