Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Where’s the Beef? The Mouth-Watering World of Lab-Grown Meat

Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands have spent the past five years working to trade in their lab coats for chef’s hats, and the results might one day save the world.

The idea of lab-grown meat conjures up a lot of curiosity in the general public. Personally I imagine a factory-sized lab complete with polished white tiles as far as the eye can see and incomprehensible lab equipment (beakers, curly transparent pipes, liquids of every conceivable colour) bubbling away to produce shelves of pulsing steaks that line the corridors. The reality is far from that, but who knows what the future might hold?

Mark Post might. He is the team-lead on Operation Lab-Burger. Post and his colleagues have spent the past half-decade getting closer and closer to producing meat that is free of needless details like cows and pigs. On Monday, August 5, 2013 in London they unveiled the culmination of their work so far: the world’s first lab-grown hamburger.

It wasn’t exactly a value-menu option, coming in at a cost of $332,000 US, but the reviews were promising. Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based journalist, was reluctant to judge the meal too harshly on account of it being free of ketchup, lettuce, and bun while Austrian nutritionist Hanni Ruetzler said it could use a dash of seasoning; but the pair agreed that the texture was about right.

The tasters’ biggest beef with the current offering is that it isn’t as juicy as regular meat. This is because it is pure muscle while a conventional burger is a mix of muscle and fat. Post is confident that allowing a certain proportion of cultured tissue to form into fat cells would solve this problem and could even be healthier than cow-fat.

The researchers are more concerned with scalability than taste. Post’s team hopes to one-day see a real market based on artificially produced animal tissue. The dish served up last week, which was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, represents only a step in the right direction.

The race to produce the world’s first commercially viable cultured meat is fueled by the need to feed a growing global population that increasingly demands a western diet high in animal protein. Experts anticipate that the global demand for meat will double in the next 40 years. Since the land devoted to raising animals for slaughter takes up something like 70% of all agricultural land on Earth, lab grown alternatives are a much more desirable option. Even PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk is singing the praises of Post’s team saying, “As long as there's anybody who's willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this.”

The meat, or “shmeat” as the researchers have taken to calling it, that was dished out in Monday’s demonstration was grown using muscle tissue from the shoulders of two organically raised cows. The cells collected from the cows were placed in a nutrient rich solution and grown into the 20,000 strands of tissue that were pressed together to make the burger. The researchers weren’t blind to the importance of presentation, however. They used red beet juice and saffron to take the beef from a pale yellow to a richer red colour, correctly assuming that people wouldn’t want to eat something that looked like it had jaundice.

The major hurdle for shmeat will be getting people to stop thinking of it as “fake-meat” and increase public willingness to eat it. Publicity stunts like last Monday’s tasting are a great way to get people engaged and talking, which is half the battle.

Whether or not lab-grown meat is a viable option for the world is still uncertain. $332,000 is a lot to pay for a dry, bland, burger. However, if the day ever comes when McDonalds starts offering up a shmeat-based Big Mac, the Sketchy Science team will be at the front of the line, salivating like a puppy in Pavlov’s Bell Shop. Eager to do our part for the environment in the most mouth-watering way possible.