You might have missed the announcement, but “after three months, $330,000 and a high-profile media blitz, the world’s first hamburger grown in a lab made its worldwide debut” on Monday. [“Long Awaited Lab-Grown Burger Is Unveiled In London,” by Eliza Barclay, Bay Area Bites, 5 August 2013] After reading Barclay’s headline, you might be asking yourself: Who exactly has been waiting for this hamburger? Animal rights activists, scientists, environmentalists, and emerging market consumers may be among those who qualify for that group.
This isn’t the first time that lab-grown meat has been attempted. Earlier attempts have not been met with much enthusiasm because the resulting product has not had much flavor. The $330,000 burger may be different. NBC journalists Alastair Jamieson and Alan Boyle report, “Taste testers … finally bit into a burger created from stem cells in a culture dish rather than meat from a farm or a store. The burger was cooked in front of reporters and taste-tested by Chicago-based author and food writer Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Rutzler.” [“‘Intense flavor’: The $330,000 burger that was built in a lab hits the spot,” NBC News, 5 August 2013] The claim that the lab-grown burger “hit the spot” might be a bit of hyperbole. Jamieson and Boyle note, “Although [Schonwald and Rutzler] struggled to decide whether they liked the taste, both were pleasantly surprised at the texture and juicyness given the absence of natural fats.” Schonwald’s high praise was, “It wasn’t unpleasant.” And Rutzler added, “There is quite some intense flavor.” Jamieson and Boyle report, however that Rutzler added that the burger “needed seasoning.” To be fair, the seasoning was left off deliberately so that the tasters could judge the quality of the “cultured meat” on its own. The burger was cooked by Chef Richard McGeown, of London’s Couch’s Great House Restaurant, who “browned it in sunflower oil and butter.” As any food lover knows, even the best cut of steak requires some seasoning.
The cultured beef that was being tasted was created by University of Maastricht physiologist Mark Post. Jamieson and Boyle report that Post conducted his research using a “€250,000 ($330,000) donation from Google co-founder and entrepreneur Sergey Brin.” They continue:
“Post has been working since 2008 to produce a palatable food product from lab-grown muscle cells. He and other scientists involved in similar projects aren’t doing it just for the novelty. They see test-tube meat as a means to head off what could become a global food crisis.”
As I’ve noted in previous posts, the world’s population is expected to surpass 9 billion people by the middle of this century. Finding a way to feed this increased number of people is going to be a challenge — especially since emerging global middle class consumers quickly acquire a taste for meat. The following video provides a good overview of why cultured meat may prove to be part of the solution to the global food crisis.
The next challenge that needs to be overcome is creating cultured beef at scale. Today that’s not possible. Barclay reports, “It took three months to culture the 20,000 individual muscle fibers that make up one single patty.” She continues:
“To create his alternative, Post first removed tissue from a cow with a syringe. Then he separated out the stem cells that specifically make new muscle when the cow is injured. He put those stem cells in a growth medium with antibiotics (to prevent contamination from bacteria). Over time, the cells divide, and with the help of some scaffolding provided by the researchers, ‘the cells will self-organize into muscle fibers,’ Post explains in the promo video. This was no small feat. As synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis pointed out in a blog post for Discover in 2012, ‘Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology. Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use.’ Hence this burger’s hefty pricetag. And while the technique for growing cow cells avoids animal slaughter, it still requires animal inputs that raise ethical concerns. As Agapakis notes, the burger cells are grown in a medium ‘supplemented with fetal bovine serum—literally the blood of unborn cows.’ Post says he is working on a non-animal based growth medium.”
As a result of the challenges that lay ahead, Barclay concludes, “It will be a longtime yet before the average consumer gets to sample an in vitro burger. First, Post says he has to bring down the pricetag — currently about $154 a pound – as well as the time it takes to grow one burger.” Post’s best estimate for when consumers will be able to pick up cultured meat in their supermarket aisles is in 10 to 20 years. In the video above, Sergey Brin notes that the future of cultured meat sounds like science fiction; but, he goes on to note that wild ideas are required if a technology is going to be transformative. Matt Novak points out that one of the first visionaries to see the potential of cultured meat was Frederick Edwin Smith Birkenhead, the Earl of Birkenhead. [“Synthetic Hamburgers Are the Future–And Have Been for Decades,” Paleofuture, 5 August 2013] In his book entitled, The world in 2030 A.D., the Earl “predicted that artificial meat grown in a lab was the wave of the future.” Both his prediction and his timeline may prove to be true. Novak goes on to report “that Jacob Rosin and Max Eastman laid out their case for synthetic production of everything” in their 1953 book The Road to Abundance.
Although it was a hamburger that was cooked up during the London press conference, the website Next Nature wondered how else cultured meat could be used. “Although cultured meat is typically presented as a technology to solve problems like animal suffering, food scarcity and climate issues,” the site states, “the technology could also be framed positively: Eating in-vitro could bring us entirely new food experiences and eating habits that may enrich our lives.” [“Seven Future Visions on In-Vitro Meat,” 5 August 2013] The site’s seven potential uses include:
1. Magic Meatballs that “are designed to playfully familiarize children with lab-grown meat. Young people are more prone to overconsumption of proteins and fats, and are more sensitive to the hormones and antibiotics used in conventional meat production. Luckily, lab-grown Magic Meatballs can be tailored precisely to a child’s individual needs.”
2. Knitted Meat that uses “thin threads of protein. Supermarkets sell balls of meat fiber seasoned with various spices and vegetable flavors. New kitchen appliances enable consumers to weave meat according to preset preferences. Texture, taste and tenderness can be controlled to create a personal, multisensory eating experience. Groups of diners can even knit their own sections of a protein scarf, enabling multiple people to share a unique moment.”
3. The Kitchen Meat Incubator that “does for home cooking what the electronic synthesizer did for the home musician. It provides its users with a set of pre-programmed samples that can be remixed and combined to their liking. Besides the preparation of traditional styles like steak, sausage or meatballs, consumers can bring their own imagination to the meat preparation process. The handy sliders on the device control size, shape and texture.”
4. Meat Fruit that “aims to seduce and inspire diners with an entirely new eating experience that balances eating meat and fruit. In vitro technology is used to grow meat structures that precisely mimic those of various existing fruits such as berries, oranges, and mangoes. The result is used to create La Pâte, a sweet-savory amuse-bouche ideal for Michelin-starred restaurants.”
5. Meat paint that allows children “to prepare their own meat dish in a very creative, fun and safe way: by painting! The meat paint lets children put some extra effort into their meal, which makes the dinner more valuable and meaningful again. By painting their own meal children get more affinity with their food and are therefore more willing to eat it.”
6. Meat Powder that “is a straightforward form of in vitro meat that provides the proteins you need – no more, no less. Meat Powder can be used in soups, pies and salads, but is best used in a creamy meat fondue.”
7. A Rustic In Vitro incubator that is “designed to simulate rabbit, boar or cattle. The more time it has to ripen, the more structure and character the replicating meat cells will develop.”
Humans have been eating all kinds of foods depending on where they live and what is available. Once cultured meat is available in large quantities, it won’t seem as strange or offputting as it may seem today. In fact, the meat will probably be flavored to taste and people will wonder how their ancestors were ever willing risk buying a cut a meat they weren’t sure would taste great!