World News

08.05.13

The $330,000 Fake Burger

The world’s first lab-grown hamburger, made from the cells of a living cow, was eaten in London today. Diners’ verdict? A taste more test tube than meat.

The world’s first lab-grown hamburger was pan-fried in butter and served up in London today.

Scientists hope the five-ounce patty, made from 100 percent test-tube meat, heralds the future of food production. But the first people to digest this scientific marvel were hardly impressed by the flavor. “It was very, very neutral,” Josh Schonwald, the author of The Taste of Tomorrow, told me. “It was more like a platform for other flavors, like pasta.”

That wasn’t what Sergey Brin, the Google founder who funded this project, wanted to hear. For the research team, however, the taste of the meat isn’t the primary concern at this stage. The burger, grown from a few cells taken from a living cow, was the culmination of almost a decade of scientific breakthroughs. It’s “on the cusp of viability,” said Brin in a video message. “If what you are doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, you are not being transformative enough.”

The prototype burger, which cost more than $330,000, was made up of about 40 billion cells produced in a lab in the Netherlands. Dr. Mark Post, the professor at Maastricht University who has masterminded the in vitro meat project, said an improved version was likely to be available from stores in the next 10 to 20 years.

The next test will be convincing consumers that they have nothing to fear from men in white coats making their lunch in a petri dish. “We are producing meat. It’s just not in a cow,” Post said during a presentation in West London.

He foresees supermarkets offering two identical products, with the traditionally slaughtered food bearing a mandated label that says “animals were harmed in the making of this meat,” though he admits that someone has got to come up with a better name for his lab meat. “We’re sticking with Cultured Beef for now,” he said. “Which is better than Franken-burger, but it’s not very satisfactory.”

Work also remains to be done on the product. The chef, who was asked to cook the burger on a gas stove in front of a small audience, admitted that there was very little aroma coming from the sizzling patty, and his regular basting with more and more butter suggested he was finding it difficult to get a good sear.

Video screenshot

Watch the first ever taste of "Cultured Beef."

The next test will be convincing consumers that they have nothing to fear from men in white coats making their lunch in a petri dish.

Hanni Rützler, a nutritional scientist who was first to cut into the burger, said it had a realistic meaty texture in the center, but a crunch on the outside and an unnaturally high temperature after cooking. Schonwald, the other taste tester, said it was like “an animal protein cake. It had a cakelike quality.” Both agreed the burger was lacking fat and therefore flavor and juiciness.

Nevertheless, this type of meal was once considered the domain of fantasy writers, who have imagined growing meat in laboratories for a century. Serious scientists began to argue it would be feasible to grow meat in a lab in recent decades. In 2005 the Dutch government put money in the hands of several research groups and told them to prove it could work. Post was one of those researchers, although his latest work was funded by Brin. 

The group of Dutch politicians were inspired to act amid United Nations warnings that the global population would rise to 9 billion by 2050, putting an impossible strain on meat production. Their vision paid off today.

The burger patty was made of about 20,000 tiny strands of beef muscle, each grown in a lab from cells taken from a healthy Blanc Bleu Belge or Blond Acquitaine cow raised organically on a European farm. Those muscle cells were fed until they multiplied and grew into small lumps of meat biologically identical to the natural muscle that makes up virtually all the conventional meat we buy in supermarkets.

We are all familiar with the next stage of development. If you want a muscle to grow you have to exercise it, and this is where the Frankenstein comparisons become all the more vivid. It’s quite difficult to exercise tiny scraps of muscle in a lab, but a technique was developed using mouse muscles, which were fixed down with Velcro before having electricity passed through them—that would force the muscles to contract, pulling against the Velcro over and over again until they became bigger and stronger. This miniaturized gym routine enabled the scientists to grow usable quantities of bovine muscle—otherwise known as beef.

So, is this really meat? “Yes,” Dr. Iain Brassington, a bioethics lecturer at the University of Manchester, told me. “It’s got the cellular makeup of meat. It’s meat!” He says the only difference between the beef from a slaughtered cow and what is being produced in a Dutch lab is the bone and marbling of fat. “Most people cut off the fat and throw away the bones anyway, so there really is no need to have them in the first place.”

Certainly this lab grown meat cannot be compared to previous generations of meat substitute, which have been created using vegetables, grains, or fungus flavored to remind the consumer of the real thing. For some groups there is no incentive to conclude that this is real meat.

“There are some vegetarians who are absolutely over the moon,” said Liz O’Neil, a spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society, speaking on the phone. “Is it meat? We can’t make a decision yet, because we still don’t know enough about the final product, but anything that stops animals being slaughtered is a good thing.”

The precise method of growing the lab meat in a commercial context will be crucial in deciding whether this can be classified as the first vegetarian-friendly meat. Original researchers took cells from the necks of dead cows and grew them in foetal bovine serum, taken from slaughtered pregnant cattle. It is hoped that an alternative growth solution can be found, while it is already possible to harvest muscle cells without harming the cow.

A spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said: "One day you will be able to eat meat with ethical impunity. In vitro technology will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming."

Beyond animal cruelty issues, large-scale cattle farming also has an enormous environmental footprint. The demand for crops to feed cattle, transportation, and the release of methane all threaten unsustainable environmental damage. Laboratory meat production would help tackle all of those and, perhaps most important, prevent the world from running out of beef.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, said more research was required before the real impact of in vitro meat was known. “Producing this one burger took three months, so we are a considerable distance from any commercial production,” she told The Daily Beast. “We need to know a lot more about the nature of the inputs in energy and materials, and the waste produced.”