The world’s first test-tube hamburger taste test took place in London on Aug 5, marking the public’s first exposure to edible, vat-grown meat. The two taste testers – an American food critic and an Austrian food scientist –ate a five ounce patty of “beef” made entirely from meat grown in a lab.
The verdict? While the taste testers gave slightly differing reviews, both found the meat at least palatable, saying it was, in texture and flavor, “like meat.”
Damning with faint praise, to be sure. But the question remains, is there a viable economic future to mass-produced, lab-grown meat? Let’s look at the immediate stumbling blocks to marketing “Frankenmeat,” and possible solutions.
The cultured beef, as it is referred to by scientists, certainly didn’t wow the taste testers. But the solution, like it is with so much cooking, might just be “more fat.”
The cultured beef served to the taste testers was made by taking stem cells from the shoulder of a slaughterhouse cow and growing it out in a nutrient broth. Just getting the 20,000 muscle fibers that constituted the cultured beef patty to pressed together was an enormous undertaking. So little thought was given to flavor.
Researchers feel fixing taste is just a matter of growing fat from stem cells as well, and like any decent chuck, mixing in the right percentage (the vat-grown burgers were 100 percent lean.) Director of biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences Stig Omholt said "Taste is the least (important) problem since this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells" in a similar manner the muscle cells were grown.
While the taste might not be tantalizing yet, the environmental impact is. Vat grown meat could eliminate the need to mass produce livestock, and with it eliminate the millions of tons of methane that factory farm release into the atmosphere.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.According to the UN, livestock production accounts for 37 percent of all methane humans contribute to the atmosphere. Cultured beef would only require a scant amount of livestock to produce a comparable amount of beef, and thus would theoretically account for a negligible amount of methane.
Environmental group Greenpeace has already come out against cultured meat, saying establishing ethical farming practices should be the focus of food scientists, saying working on perfecting cultured meat “distracts agricultural research and funding away from ecological farming.”
There’s no getting around that cultured meat will still mean accumulating livestock for thye purpose of harvesting their stem cells. But in an ideal situation, cultured beef would not require any animals to die, and would exponentially decrease the amount of livestock necessary to feed the world’s growing population.
Cultured meat even has the approval of the notoriously hard-to-please People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Following the taste test, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said vat grown meat “will bring much more business interest, as companies see it is the wave of the future, the food of the future… If you have a kind bone in your body and understand what goes on in factory farming … you will rejoice if animals don’t have to go through that.”
The production of the patty used in the London taste test cost a cool $330,000. While the price is obviously not feasible for long-term production, investors still see great potential. One of the most prominent being Google Inc. (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin, who bankrolled the entire project.
As quoted in the Guardian, Brin said “It’s really just proof of concept right now, we’re trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger… From there I’m optimistic that we can really scale by leaps and bounds.”
According to researchers, shrinking this number to a point where cultured meat would be a feasible choice for even the most affluent diners at least I0 years away. But once the price point becomes advantageous, the so-called “pristine farms” could become insanely profitable.