Test-Tube Meat: ‘Steak Chips’ the Future of Food?

test tube meatSmall pink wafers grown in a lab from tiny samples of animal tissue. Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, a company developing “test-tube” meat, also known as “cultured” or “in vitro,” calls them steak chips, and he says the technology may be the future of food. Tasters pronounced the steak chips delicious, like a thin piece of beef jerky that would be difficult to tell from real meat.

The tasting occurred at the mid-March South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, a gathering that stresses the values of creativity, inspiration, and innovation. The festival aims for programming that energizes, enlivens, and excites, encouraging new ideas as much as new technology. Rob Rhinehart, CEO of nutritional-science Rosa Labs, says once food is seen as technology the logical question is why it cannot get better.

There is a lot of disagreement over whether the cultured meat products are real or fake. As the public increasingly focuses on organic, non-altered, natural food, cultured meat sounds very suspect. A Pew survey held recently showed that 80 percent of Americans would not eat lab-grown meat.

However, the test-tube meat innovators see our current meat-raising methods to be unsustainable. A 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that industrialized agriculture is a massive contributor to air pollution, climate change, energy use, land degradation, and deforestation. Raising livestock for food produces an estimated 14.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas, pollutes rivers with manure, and requires great amounts of water. Plus, global demand for meat over the next 40 years is expected to double.

In addition to leaving a much lighter footprint on nature, it is theorized that lab-grown meat might even help alleviate food shortages in some areas of the world. Advocates also say it is more humane because no animals are killed.

A few biotechnology startups have begun researching and developing alternative food products, such as test-tube meat, which may become common in the future. Beyond Meat is a company making lab-produced meat from the plant protein in soy, peas, and apples that is heated, cooled, and pressed so that the structure resembles the tissue in meat. Their “chicken strips” are already in 4,000 U.S. stores.

Rosa Labs recently started mass-producing a drink supplement named Soylent, that is aimed at meeting all of the body’s nutritional needs, although the name may give older movie buffs the willies. Hampton Creek Foods is devoting their efforts to developing a plant-based egg substitute.

But Modern Meadows’ test-tube meat is the one getting the most attention, much of it controversial. Their cultured beef is made by taking muscle cells from a steer, and applying proteins to stimulate tissue growth. The samples are grown in an incubator and, over a period of weeks, built layer upon layer. The cost is extremely high. The first lab-grown beef burger, cooked and served to food critics in London last August, cost approximately $325,000.

Between the cost, manufacturing complexities, and the federal regulation process, test-tube meat will not likely become the food of the future immediately. Public perception may be the biggest hurdle to cross, making it unlikely that steak chips will be showing up on menus any time soon.

By Beth A. Balen

SXSW Interactive