“Cell-based food products are not yet available in most parts of the world; therefore, most consumers are unlikely to be familiar with them or the processes used to make them,” making now “an opportune time for regulatory authorities [and other stakeholders] to communicate about the relevant food safety questions associated with these products and process, and to establish themselves as” authoritative and trustworthy, FAO, in collaboration with WHO, argues in its first global report on the food safety aspects of cell-based food technology published earlier this month.
It explains if stakeholders wait to discuss product safety and regulatory review processes of cell-based products until they are already on the market their messaging likely will be lost in the reaction to the product, and insights about the regulatory process designed to ensure safety will be drowned out or lost.
“After the widescale introduction of cell-based food products to the marketplace, and the accompanying marketing campaigns designed to sell (or oppose) them, consumers, policy makers, and other stakeholders may already hold rigid opinions,” as was the case following “communication failures” associated with genetic modification and food irradiation, FAO notes.
“Studies show that humans have a tendency to assign meaning to incoming information based on their current beliefs and attitudes and what they already believe to be true, especially when presented with information they don’t understand,” which can result in seeking information that reinforces their beliefs and ignoring information that challenges, the report explains.
Evolving consumer perceptions of cell-based products
Public opinion about cell-cultured meat already is forming as buzz about VOW’s Mammoth meatball goes viral and word spreads about FDA giving a greenlight to GOOD Meat Inc. and UPSIDE Foods’ use of animal cell culture technology to create meat in controlled environment in the US.
But how consumers react depends in part on their values, according to FAO.
It explains, “consumers who are most enthusiastic about the potential of cell-based food have fewer concerns and questions about safety than those consumers who are skeptical or rejectors of this biotechnology.”
Skeptical consumers worry about what additives and chemicals might be in cell-based food, the long-term safety issues that might later be discovered, have a reluctance to try new foods or are unsure how the foods fit into their moral and religious beliefs, FAO notes.
“Implementation of vigilant hazard/risk assessments, control measures, transparency and effective risk communication are important strategies for mitigating these risk perceptions,” it adds.
Identifying and navigating hazards
As such, FAO and WHO tapped a panel of 13 technical experts and 10 resource people to convene in Singapore last November to conduct the first global food safety hazard identification of cell-based food.
Together they identified 19 potential hazards during cell-sourcing, 12 potential hazards during the production stage, 10 potential hazards during cell harvesting and nine potential hazards during processing, which should be on stakeholders’ radars and addressed carefully in communication.
Because many consumers tend to conflate hazard and risk, FAO recommends the hazards be contextualized and the probability or degree of threat each could pose be represented.
“Beyond the hazards identified [by FAO and WHO], consumers may have other concerns” that are not “scientifically considered to be a hazard,” but which may “nevertheless strongly influence safety perceptions of cell-based food,” and should be addressed, FAO said.
These include concerns about “unnaturalness” or “emotional resistance to cell-based food, resulting from perceptions of ‘absurdity and/or disgust’” that could result in an unwillingness to try the products, FAO said.
Strategies for addressing consumer concerns, heading off a backlash
To get ahead of consumer concerns about cell-based products, FAO recommends stakeholders transparently communicate how regulatory decisions are made and make available health and safety data in accessible format.
It also recommends first addressing consumer concerns and then backfilling with information that experts believe is essential to understanding cell-based products.
“Stakeholders are more likely to listen to and comprehend the messages that experts wish to communicate if those experts first address their key concerns,” FAO said.
On that note, it recommends holding focus groups and actively reaching out to consumers to identify their most pressing questions and concerns.