Prospect of lab-grown meat stirs controversy, skepticism

Feb 24, 2012

Sunday, Feb. 19 saw the announcement of what might be the first successful effort to grow meat in a lab. Of course, it didn’t take long for the discussion to take on distinctly science-fictiony tones that would make any nerd feel at home. Star Trek’s famous replicators were mentioned. The phrases “Frankenstein” and “mystery meat” were thrown around with abandon. And “petri dish” has been verbally wielded in ways more fitting discussions of alien weaponry.

Professor Mark Post of the Maastricht University in the Netherlands announced his team’s progress at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada. The anonymously-funded project is growing small strips of beef muscle tissue which will eventually be able to be ground together with some similarly created strips of beef fat to create what several articles have dubbed “the first test tube hamburger.” Post reports sufficient meat and fat should be grown in time to debut the burger in October 2012.

The lab-grown meat is being created in exceedingly small strips. Each strip is about an inch long, a half inch wide, and only a millimeter thick. This means each strip is roughly the size of a half stick of traditional chewing gum. To make the single burger, it is expected 3,000 such strips of meat and 200 similar strips of grown beef fat are required. Each strip takes six weeks to grow.

The meat strips are created using muscle stem cells from donor cattle. The strips are grown in a “broth containing vital nutrients and serum from a cow fetus,” about which little is said. According to Post, his process would still require slaughter, since only a limited number of muscle stem cells can be harvested from an animal without causing harm. However, he continues that the lab-based technique would increase an individual animal’s meat production capability by about a million times traditional slaughter.

The strips of muscle tissues are stimulated to encourage contraction like actual muscle tissue, and efforts have been made to simulate a real-muscle setting as much as possible to improve the eventual texture of the meat. So far, the lab-grown meat has wavered in color from light pink to yellowish-pink.

No one has taste-tested any of the beef strips; at least none that have been reported anyway. However, in Post’s earlier studies on pork, an opportunistic Russian journalist who helped himself to a sample declared himself “unimpressed,” according to a report by The Telegraph which broke the story.

Post has been quoted saying the process could be made economic on consumer scales in as little as 10 years assuming sufficient research funding. Other sources suggest 20 years or more is a more realistic expectation.

The research has been funded by an anonymous donation valued at $330,000.

The donor, who demanded anonymity, is said to be the decision-maker on who will be invited to the “test tube burger’s” debut. Post, however, hopes that acclaimed chef Heston Blumenthal —known for his love of science in cooking and willingness to adopt new food technologies—will cook and serve the burger. Reports are mixed on Blumenthal’s response.

The stated goal behind the research is to find a way to answer the world’s growing population and anticipated demand for meat while not resorting to increased livestock farming.

According to Nicholas Genovese, organizer of this year’s AAAS meeting, by 2050, the demand for meat will have increased 60 percent from today’s numbers. Other sources claim the 2050 demand for meat could be double today’s levels. Nowhere was there any mention of addressing rising populations.

Post has called animal agriculture unsustainable and the animals (particularly cattle and hogs) “inefficient in the way they convert vegetable matter to animal protein,” and cites this as motivation for his research.

While Post’s comments were relatively tame in their derision of traditional livestock farming, others were quick to jump on the everpopular ‘animal ag is evil’ bandwagon.

“Animal farming is by far the biggest ongoing environmental catastrophe,” said Patrick Brown, a biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine who is also working on a lab-made meat project of his own. The AAAS press release recapping the Vancouver meeting also cited a variety of its members accusing modern meat production of inefficiency and being “long overdue for a technological revolution.” The familiar trope of ‘blame big’ was also trotted out by Genovese, who implicated large feeding operations with deadly E. coli outbreaks among people.

Just about every article on the issue—from wellknown, respected international media outlets down to small regional news outlets no one’s heard of—has asked readers whether they would eat the lab-grown meat. Some have asked in the rhetorical sense while others give readers the opportunity to respond with their opinions. The reader poll on The Telegraph article has been taken by over 11,000 readers and shows roughly 27 percent willing to eat the lab-made meat.

Reader comments range from amusing to witty to down-right silly in their demonstrated level of ignorance. Some readers damn the fake meat and “big Ag” in one breath (or line, as is the case), call it an affront to God and/or Nature and speculate on its untested palatability. And, as with all internet-borne discussions, most comment threads naturally devolve into namecalling interspersed with cultural references.

Among the more humorous comments were people comparing the in vitro meat to soylent green from the 1973 cult classic horror movie (soylent green was people, not lab-grown beef) and mockingly suggesting old westerns be rewritten to include John Wayne overseeing “herds of test tubes.”

What could also be seen as amusing—or as a red flag—is the support the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has for this effort. PETA has praised the research of Professor Post and all others like it. The group even has an on-going bounty of $1 million to any group which can produce in vitro chicken meat on a consumer-viable scale.

Current PETA spokesman Alistair Currie had this to say to Telegraph reporters on Post’s work:

“PETA has no objection to the eating of meat. PETA objects to the killing of animals and their exploitation. I personally don’t fancy eating this, but if other people do that’s fine.”

Post’s comment that his project would still require the slaughter of some animals apparently wasn’t noticed by PETA when it praised the research.

Though the topic has inspired in places humorous— or in others, visceral—reactions in consumers, the prospect of artificially-produced meat products has the potential to hugely impact ranching as we know it. If the estimates of 10 to 20 years to industrial viability are to be believed, ranchers could have something to worry about. Even with Post’s projections of a small world-wide herd of donor stem cell cattle needed for slaughter to maintain his industrial-sized visions, such numbers would be nothing compared to our current norm.

Those are all mighty big ifs though. And most of them depend on a network of other sizable ifs as well.

Dr. Don Coover, president of SEK Genetics, pointed out a number of these ifs in an interview.

“If they can do that [grow cultured meat at viable industrial levels] and if it meets with consumer acceptance, then, yes, it could be a paradigm changer. If someone could come up with a wholesome, safe, healthy, tasty, palatable product cheaply, then it would be a technology worth pursuing. But I won’t be selling my shares in the beef industry.”

Coover pointed out the elements of consumer acceptance and economic feasibility would be deciding factors on any potential future of “test tube burgers.”

If the reader comments on articles dealing with the announcement are any indication, knee-jerk rejections will be a huge hurdle to cross even before the issue of taste and mouth feel are addressed.

Coover responded with a laugh that “all new technology is scary.”

Despite being new to consumers, the science behind it is anything but. “It’s interesting technology, but it’s nothing new. They’ve been culturing muscle tissue for a long time. But I don’t see it as viable for several decades if at all,” said Coover.

“It’s a technology whose time might come, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor