Photo: Simon Swatman (Flickr)
It goes by many names: in-vitro flesh, cultured beef, Frankenburger, sheet meat or even “shmeat.” But regardless of what it’s called, the strange stuff has finally hit the table.
Researchers at Maastricht University created the artificial meat by extracting stem cells from a biopsy of fresh beef, which were then nursed on calf serum, algae extract and sugar. It took three months and 20,000 tiny strands of cells to make a single 5-ounce patty. On Monday, a chef served it up for two lucky foodies, Austrian scientist Hanni Ruetzler and food writer Josh Schonwald. Google founder Sergey Brin picked up the $330,000 tab.
Reaction was something short of spectacular, but Ruetzler told reporters at the news conference that “there is quite some intense taste” and that the “consistency is perfect.” Schonwald agreed, saying “the mouthfeel is like meat,” though he said it reminded him of cake.
Both diners remarked on the leanness of the burger — since only muscle cells were cultured, the patty contained no fat. Fat cells could be cultured and added using the same technology. Commercially viable shmeat could be a couple of decades off, researchers said.
The project’s Dutch mastermind, professor Mark Post, called the experiment “a very good start.”
Supporters see this as more than a mad-science stunt. The sustainability arguments are strong. A study at Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that industrial shmeat production would consume 45 percent less energy than conventional cattle farming, use up 99 percent less land, and produce 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions (and zero cow burps).
Maastricht University hired public relations firm Ogilvy to handle the scrum of press for this event. A spokesperson for the company who answered questions on behalf of Post, but declined to be named for the story, said Post expected some initial resistance to the idea, but hoped time and good marketing would prevail.
“When people see two products side by side that are identical, and one carries warnings about its environmental implications and the cruelty involved, they might be more inclined to eat Cultured Beef.”
A ‘Magical’ Day
Many animal right activists have lauded the idea of substituting “painless” laboratory meat for the flesh of butchered animals.
Isha Datar, the director of New Harvest, a nonprofit bent on finding alternatives to conventional meat, called the taste test an “excellent event.”
“The initial responses are not totally positive, but once conversation is stimulated, it’s really hard to come up with a reason why this would be a bad idea,” she said. She admits that there is some resistance to the idea, a gut reaction against the “unnaturalness” of this process. But she said that in reality, the status quo is no less fraught.
“It is the factory farming, where we are feeding crops that humans could benefit from, grown on land that could be used for human agriculture or even forestry, which needs to change.”
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have long supported this kind of research, and even offered a $1 million bounty to the first company that produces commercially viable lab-grown chicken.
PETA president Ingrid Newkirk called the event in London a “magical,” historic day.
“People eat a million chickens an hour, and each one of those is an individual, each of those is frightened, each one of them feels pain as much as a dog or you or I, so the amount of suffering that in-vitro meat will take away is almost incalculable,” she said. She added that there are already plenty of vegetable-based mock meats available for those who don’t want to wait from the shmeat revolution.
Shmeat Eater’s Dilemma
Vegetarians and philosophers remain divided on the ethics of lab-made meat. Paul Thompson, philosophy professor at Michigan State University who specializes in agricultural ethics, is working on a paper that will explore the ethical implications of this technology. He said though researchers are promoting cultured beef for its environmental sustainability, it’s too early to tell how industrial production would measure up.
“It’s a product that is interesting because of the way it challenges a lot of our categories, and our categories often just don’t make rational sense when it comes to the way we think about food.”
Thompson said since the meat is grown without nerve tissue or a neural network, it seems clear that the process doesn’t produce suffering. But “we really don’t know,” he said.
“It’s tempting to think that this product isn’t even alive, and that just isn’t the case. I mean these are living cells, and at some level we can’t be sure that they don’t have any kind of ethical significance.”
To illustrate potential stickiness with this technology in the future, he raised an extreme hypothetical example.
“There’s really no reason why you couldn’t have laboratory produced meats from any kind of source, including from humans. But that really creeps people out.”
Sandra Shapshay, philosophy professor biomedical ethics at Indiana University, who also is a pescatarian, said the promise of commercially available suffer-free meat “seems like a fantastic thing.”
But she points to one lingering ethical objection, what she called the “expressive quality” attached to the consumption of any meat.
“I think a very hardcore moral vegetarian would still have problems with it. Because it at least expresses that animal flesh is appropriate as food.” She said. Thompson’s example of lab-enabled cannibalism illustrates this point, because of the message it would send about dignity and the consumption of human flesh, she said. But Thompson added that if this technology ultimately led to the complete replacement of meat derived from harming and killing animals, vegetarians shouldn’t hold on to such objections.