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Meat Without Murder: Would You Eat a Lab-Grown Burger?

Lab-grown meat could resolve the environmental and ethical problems of industrial agriculture. But will anyone eat it?
 
 
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Mark Post had a slight grin on his face as he prepared to reveal the contents of the stainless steel food container in his hands. In front of him were a phalanx of photographers, cameras, and scribblers – an audience of more than 200 reporters from media outlets around the globe. The journalists gathered at the London auditorium were eagerly waiting to see – and perhaps even taste – the world’s most expensive hamburger.

This, however, was not  haute cuisine . Post, a vascular physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was about to reveal some of the world’s first synthetic meat: a conglomeration of artificially cultivated protein engineered to have the look and taste of ground beef. The burger in Post’s hands was, in fact, meat. But it hadn’t come from an animal. It was created in a lab.

The media’s enthusiasm was fueled by equal parts garish curiosity and idealistic promise. The development of lab-grown meat has the potential, Post and others believe, to revolutionize what we eat. Synthetic meat offers the tantalizing prospect of reducing the environmental impacts of meat production. Lab-grown meat could also eliminate the horrific animal suffering embedded in our industrial agriculture system. And, more to the point, it could give confirmed carnivores a way to maintain their appetite for flesh while avoiding meat’s ethical and environmental dilemmas.

Post was promising that you could have your eco-friendly steak, and eat it, too. This was meat without the murder.

“Twenty years from now,” Post told the assembled reporters, “if you enter a supermarket you will have a choice between two identical-looking products. One will have a label that says it has been produced with a lower environmental footprint, the other will have a smoking-type label that says animals have suffered or been killed to produce this meat.”

Post opened the container to reveal a small pinkish mesh of muscle tissue in a petri dish. The click of the cameras was punctuated by a few bursts of laughter from the audience. The sample looked pretty measly; there wouldn’t be much to share around. A few people murmured with surprise as the chef on stage grilled the five-ounce patty in butter, a choice that seemed incongruous given the aspirations of the whole endeavor.

The guest tasters were more forgiving, if not exactly effusive. “I was expecting the texture to be more soft,” food scientist Hanni Ruetzler said after nibbling on the patty. “It’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy.” Her final verdict: “crunchy and hot” and “a bit like cake.”

The “cruelty-free” burger might have passed its first taste-test, but whether it will ever be able to compete with traditional meat is uncertain. While the science of lab-grown meat is advancing, the technological hurdles to commercialization are immense. Environmentalists are split on the wisdom of the effort, with some arguing that it’s a distraction from getting people to just shift their eating habits to a more plant-based diet. And the cost remains prohibitive. With a price tag of $330,000 for that single patty (bun and sauce not included), it’s going to be a long while before Post’s burger is sold at your local supermarket.

Hamburger Helper

Post’s burger wasn’t the first synthetic meat to be exhibited in public before, only the most mediagenic. Post belongs to a small group of researchers in the US and Europe – spurred in part by animal rights groups – who are racing to bring lab-grown meat to market.

The science behind lab-grown meat developed out of the stem cell research that began to mature in the 1990s, promising of a new era of regenerative medicine to treat injury and disease in humans. The first breakthrough demonstration of lab-meat technology was financed by NASA. In 2002, the space agency funded a group of scientists who went on to successfully grow goldfish muscle cells, which, they said, “resemble fresh fish filets,” although they were never tasted in public. After its initial burst of interest in alternative sources of protein to feed astronauts, NASA dropped its funding for the idea. But around the same time, a group of Harvard University tissue engineers served up muscle tissue grown from frog cells at an art exhibition in Nantes, France. The exhibition guests didn’t enjoy the taste of their lab-grown frog meat, but the interest in synthetic meat continued to build.

 
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