Doctoral Student Studies How Product Labeling, Advertising Influence Consumers’ Attitudes toward Lab-Grown Meats
By Eric Hollenbeck
What is your reaction when you hear the term lab-grown meat? Perhaps it triggers strong feelings of disgust, or what researchers call the “yuckiness factor.” Or maybe you are excited about this technological breakthrough and eager for a new, cruelty-free meat to arrive in grocery stores.
WSU doctoral student Kamal Ahmmad studies questions like these to better understand people’s attitudes toward products—research he hopes will guide both marketers and policy makers in decisions that will benefit consumers.
Ahmmad recently received a $1,000 Alice O. Rice Graduate Fellowship to study how product labeling, advertising, and promotion influence consumer perceptions of lab-grown meat. The grant was awarded by the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at WSU.
Lab-grown meat offers promising solutions to environmental concerns
Lab-grown—or “cultured meat”—refers to meat grown from cells in a bioreactor without the slaughter of animals. In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of “cultured chicken”—a global first that could potentially open the door to mass production.
“For a sustainable future, there is a dire need for a safe and humane food alternative that satisfies consumers’ demand for meat while not exerting negative impacts on the environment and health,” Ahmmad says. “Lab-grown meat is a promising solution to this crisis.”
Raising animals for food is a significant contributor to climate change through the production of methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases. Lab-grown meat, in contrast, has a small environmental footprint, and it doesn’t require killing animals.
“I grew up in Bangladesh where livestock production is very important to the economy, but I worry about the impact it has on the environment,” Ahmmad says.
But whether lab-grown meat catches on depends on consumer perception.
Education, safety labeling overcome reluctance to try it
In his initial research, Ahmmad found that consumers had “a default reluctance” toward eating lab-grown meat. Their attitudes were based on the “unnaturalness” of the product and suspicion of the technology used to create it.
In three experiments, however, Ahmmad found that people’s perceptions could be swayed. When lab-grown meats were marketed under certain product names and had specific safety labels, people were more willing to try it. Educating people about how lab-grown meat is produced also strengthened its acceptance.
Motivated by more than the bottom line
Now in his fourth year in the Carson College of Business doctoral program, Ahmmad’s research helps bridge the gap between marketers, policy makers, and consumers.
His goal is to untangle the complexity of consumer decision-making and discover which strategies persuade consumers to take action or, in some cases, abstain from action. That was the point of previous research Ahmmad worked on with his advisor Elizabeth Howlett, professor of marketing, about unintended consequences of graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging.
While marketing research often focuses on maximizing profits, Ahmmad says there is a more meaningful purpose behind his work.
“I want to do research that not only helps businesses; I want consumers to benefit by having the knowledge to make informed decisions about products,” he says.
Ahmmad expects to complete his doctorate in May 2022. He plans to continue his research on lab-based meats, which will serve as the basis for his dissertation.
He’s also looking at people’s protein consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. His initial research suggests that meat consumption went up during the pandemic.
“Consumers experiencing a threat that affects hopefulness are less likely to choose healthier meat alternatives, such as plant-based meat,” he says.