The world’s first lab-grown hamburger, dubbed “schmeat,” was cooked up by Chef Richard McGeown in London this month and fed to professional food-industry volunteers. The verdict? It needs seasoning. The taste-testers told audiences that the hamburger had more or less the right consistency and juiciness, but the flavor was lacking. Food researcher Hanni Rutzler said “the surface of the meat was crunchy, surprisingly. The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat-substitute like soya.”
The single lab-grown hamburger was created over the course of three years by Dr. Mark Post from the Netherlands, with the financial help of surprise investor Sergey Brin. Brin is one of the co-founders of Google; a company who perseveres to “do no evil.” At the beginning of the project, Brin did not want his name attached to the schmeat experiment because it might overshadow the scientifc validity of the process. After the taste testing, however, Brin came out of the investor’s closet and let the world know he wanted to champion this project in hopes of eradicating animal abuse. Of the modern meat trade, Brin said “when you see how these cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with.”
Despite the strange production method, lab-grown schmeat is not considered to be a genetically modified food because none of the cells have been changed from their original form. NASA was already given the go-ahead in 1995 from the Food and Drug Aministration to pursue similar in-vitro meat research in hopes of feeding long-haul astronauts in the future. The three-year project has cost an estimated 250 000 Euros, or more than US $342 000.
To create the lab-grown hamburger, Post and his team extracted stem cells from two living cows, and cultured those cells in petrie dishes. The stem cells used were destined to grow into muscle tissues, which is the basis of real meat. When more than 20 000 of the muscle tissues were finished growing, the were taken from their dishes and combined into the equivalent of one small hamburger patty.
Dr. Mark Post from Maastricht University says the process is actually much more efficient than the traditional method of obtaining meat from a farmed animal.
“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein. So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With laboratory-grown meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [make] any methane.”
The schmeat patty looked the same as a normal patty of raw ground beef, however this was due largely to Chef McGeown. Prior to frying the patty with sunflower oil and butter, McGeown mixed the lab-grown muscle fibers with breadcrumbs, red beet juice and saffron to give it a more natural color and texture.
Dr. Post said that his lab-grown hamburgers should pose no health threats to consumers, although he admitted that without years of consumption research he cannot be certain about schmeat’s effect on human health. David Biello, of Scientific American, explains that “in-vitro meat features heavy antibiotic use to keep the cells alive and growth on serum from the blood of unborn cows gathered from slaughterhouses (as well as the less gruesome sugars, proteins and fatty acids).” Biello questions the merit of producing antibiotic-dependent meat products, as well as the overall nutrition of the lab-grown meat. Schmeat at its current phase is comprised solely of muscle tissues, with no fat or blood in the mix. Without the latter elements, a lab-grown hamburger will be missing essential nutrients such as iron.
Investors and researchers on the schmeat project insist that their lab-grown meat is only in the first stages of completion. Post has his eyes on the future, when he hopes that his research will have produced a commercially-viable, environmentally-friendly and cruelty-free food option. Right now, an estimated 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is used by pasture animals who are raised solely for human consumption. In comparison, an estimated four percent of the Earth’s surface is used for the production of foods that can be eaten unprocessed.
Over the course of the next fifty years, the world’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion, which means that a diet rich in meat will contribute to further deforesting and carbon emissions. Lab-grown meats could have the potential to reclaim pasture and forest lands, as well as lower the annual global carbon emissions that are contributing to global warming.
PETA is all for Lab-Grown Schmeat
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA – has been investing in lab-grown meat alternatives for years. In 2008, the animal rights organization offered a prize of $1 million to any company that could produce a commercially viable in-vitro chicken product. Unfortunately for Dr. Post, his lab-grown patty was made from beef.
PETA members are worldwide animal advocates who promote the use of vegan and vegetarian products as much as possible. Even they concede, however, that some people are just not on board with dropping meat from their diets. “And that’s going to be OK one day,” PETA explains on their official website, “because cultured beef is meat.”
As for Dr. Post, he is also excited to play a part in the future of animal welfare, as well as environmental sustainability. Admittedly, Post says that his project is far from completion, but early research values suggest that lab-grown meat could reduce the commercial need for land and water by up to 90 percent. Energy use could also be cut by up to 70 percent.
Evolution Versus Lab-Grown Meat
Harvard University primatologist Professor Richard Wrangham believes that the desire to eat meat is actually an innate part of human character. Further, the researcher explains that obtaining, cooking and eating meat was an all-important part of human evolution. Access to rich sources of protein and nutrients like salt, iron and zinc – found in meat – were responsible for the grown of the human brain over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. For these reasons, many people believe that giving up meat as a part of one’s regular diet is a bad idea.
If Post and the schmeat team want to reclaim pasture lands and clean up the air, they have a long way to go. Fortunately, the research team is already thinking about the future, which includes lab-grown chicken and even fish, along with a much more complex nutrient-delivery system for in-vitro cells. This process could evolve so as to include blood vessels and fat cells; even bone. The end result would be a tastier burger and a much more commercially-viable option for retailers.
Written by Mandy Gardner
Wall Street Journal – Scientists Cook Up Lab-Grown Beef in London
Swarthmore Co-op Blog – Schmeat, What’s Not Being Said