By Katie Engelhart
The verdict is in. The world’s first hamburger made entirely of lab-grown, “cultured beef” tastes… OK.
It’s a little bland, tasters reported of the patty, which cost over $330,000 to produce. And it lacks juiciness. (The burger contains no fat.) But otherwise, it has a good “mouth feel” and a solid texture. Most importantly: it tastes like it once lived and breathed and mooed.
Scientists predict that you will be eating patties just like it in 10 or 20 years.
A Tasty First
Today, hoards of journalists gathered at a production studio in west London for a historic event: the unveiling of the world’s first-ever cultured beef* burger—engineered by Maastricht University professor Mark Post. In the frenzied minutes before the launch began, reporters and film crews gathered around platters of free sandwiches. Ham, cheese, tuna and the perennial British favorite “prawn mayo” were all on offer, though roast beef was noticeably absent.
Inside the auditorium, flashing screens welcomed the crowd. A promotional film opened with Google founder Sergey Brin, who was revealed as the anonymous donor behind the burger product. Brin, captured in an orange t-shirt and Google Glass, spoke of cultured meat’s transformative potential. The film then switched to a historical reenactment of hunter-gatherers roasting animal bones over an open flame.
The hype is huge. For years, animal rights groups have encouraged the creation of cultured meat: as a means of weaning the meat-addicted masses off livestock.
Increasingly, cultured meat is being championed by environmentalists, who warn that our planet is nearing a point of “peak meat” production. A 2011 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that global demand for meat will increase by more than two-thirds by 2050, as the population rises to 9 billion.
This is bad news for those concerned by the environmentally deleterious effects of livestock farming. About 30% of the Earth’s surface is used for livestock production. And livestock is a key producer of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Gone are the halcyon days when meat was a dinnertime staple, warn scientists. If we remain on our future path, meat will become a luxury item—and one that packs a heavy ethical punch.
Enter cultured meat, already touted as a panacea. A 2011 report from the University of Oxford claims that cultured beef production would require about 1% of the land space currently devoted to livestock, and far less energy and water.
So how do we do it?
This particular burger began with tissue taken from the necks of two donor cows from organic farms in Belgium. The cows’ stem cells were isolated and placed in a nutrient-rich medium, where they began to grow and divide. From these dishes Dr. Post selected myosatellite cells, which the body naturally uses to repair injured muscle tissue.
In order to stimulate tissue growth, the cells were then placed in donut-shaped rings, around small dabs of nutrient gel. Over time, as the nutrients diminished, the cells naturally differentiated into muscle cells and merged to form long muscle fibers. In order to bulk up the fibers, the muscles were exercised, just like weightlifters’ muscles are built at the gym. Dr. Post’s regime relied on anchor points, which function like artificial tendons, causing the cells to spontaneously contract.
The final product: a tiny noodle-like strand of cultured meat. In this case, 20,000 such strands were combined over a three-month period to make a single five-ounce burger. Scientists estimate that in the future, a single sample of cow cells could yield 22,000 U.S. tons (over 175 million quarter-pounders’ worth) of cultured beef.
Of course, there might be other ways of growing “shmeat.” Notably, Gabor Forgacs, founder of Modern Meadow, is attempting to produce cultured meat via 3-D bio-printing. Armed with a $350,000 donation from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Forgacs is working on a cultured meat “printer” whose inkjet would be filled with live cells.
Across the board, cultured meat research is likely to focus on processed meat products (burgers and sausages and nuggets) rather than, say, T-bone steaks. Cultured meat strands need to be thin, so that they have access to nutrients while growing. To create a thick cut of meat, scientists would need to engineer an artificial scaffolding of nutrient-carrying blood vessels.
Still, revolution is underway. And it began in a petri dish.
The Taste of Test-Tube
Today’s London launch was a spectacle. In front of an invite-only press crowd and a professional television crew, celebrity chef Richard McGowan faced the cultured-beef creation. The patty looked like a normal burger. We were informed that breadcrumbs and binder had been added, as well as saffron and red beet juice for coloring. McGowan placed the patty in a pan, along with rather healthy doses of sunflower oil and butter.
Two people—American journalist Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Rützler—had been pre-selected as tasters. Upon first chew, both joked that they wanted some ketchup. But their main gripe was the patty’s leanness. Dr. Post says that his next step involves adding fat.
A Long-Sought Goal
Today was certainly a long time coming. In 1931, Winston Churchill famously predicted: “The war [on the production of food] is won… We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Some seventy years later, NASA began funding cultured-meat research. The organization was interested in creating a sustainable protein for astronauts on deep space missions. Medical researchers have also advanced the field—for instance, by successfully growing human blood vessels in a lab.
The immediate obstacles to cultured beef production will undoubtedly be scale and cost. Post believes that it will be decades before his burgers hit the market. Indeed, some are skeptical that the process can be scaled at all. Synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, in an earlier post on this blog, argued that scientists often underestimate the difficulty of industrial scaling.
Agapakis also noted that Post’s method still requires fetal bovine serum (the blood of unborn cows) for use as a cultivation medium. A cost-effective synthetic or non-animal-based alternative, Agapakis warned, may not be viable. At Monday’s launch, an audience member from the non-profit New Harvest also observed that, to date, cultured meat research has largely been funded by philanthropists. What does it mean, she mused, that food companies have not stepped up?
Our Futuristic Food
But these limitations have not dampened Post’s imagination. On Monday, the scientist sketched out a fictional near-future in which normal families culture their own meat, in their own kitchens. Of course, Post joked, they would have to decide what they wanted to eat weeks ahead of time. Perhaps then “Frankenburger Fridays” would replace the now-trendy “Meatless Mondays.”
That raises a delicate question, though: What to call this new food? After today’s tasting, a journalist posed the question to Post. After a pause, Post shrugged: “Why would you come up with a new name? You would just call it ‘beef!’”
[*Alternative titles for the meat include: in vitro beef, test tube beef, tubesteak, hydroponic beef, victimless beef, cruelty-free beef, engineered animal flesh, shmeat and, Frankenfood.]
Katie Engelhart is a London-based writer and reporter. Her work appears here and there, and is collected at www.katieengelhart.com. @katieengelhart