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Would you eat a hamburger grown in a science lab?

Created date

October 22nd, 2018
This meat was grown in a lab, rather than made by a live cow.

This meat was grown in a lab, rather than made by a live cow.

In the December 1931 issue of Strand magazine, Winston Churchill laid out his predictions for the future. He envisioned a world run by nuclear power and anticipated the development of wireless telephones and televisions. 

Churchill also foresaw marvelous advances in food production. “With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e., the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. 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.”

Churchill was remarkably prescient when it came to nuclear energy and wireless communications. But when will people start eating lab-grown chicken?

If everything goes as planned, it should arrive in grocery stores within the next five to ten years.

The $325,000 hamburger

In 2013, a Norwegian scientist named Mark Post unveiled the world’s first lab-grown hamburger.

It looked like ordinary raw hamburger meat in a petri dish. Post had a renowned chef cook it, then they served it to an equally renowned food critic. “It’s close to meat,” she declared after tasting it. “It’s not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect.”

Not exactly a glowing review, especially in light of the burger’s $325,000 price tag. That is how much it cost for Post and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands to create the world’s first lab-grown hamburger.

The process

Lab-grown meat starts with stem cells. To make beef, they might extract cells from a cow’s shoulder. (The animal is given anesthesia for the procedure and is under no pain.)

The cells are placed in a medium containing nutrients and naturally occurring growth factors where they proliferate just as they would inside an animal.

Many trillions of divisions later, the cells begin to form primitive muscle fibers smaller than 0.3 mm long.

Those fibers, called myotubes, are then placed in a gel that is 99% water where the cells form the shape of muscle fibers. Those muscle cells grow into a small strand of muscle tissue.

One sample from a cow produces 800 million strands of muscle tissue or enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders.

The finished meat product can then be processed using standard food technologies. In other words, it can go into the same kind of meat grinder used to make traditional hamburger meat.

Costs

Since that first burger, the price of lab-grown meat has dropped significantly. Today a lab-created burger costs about $800. The goal is to make a lab-grown hamburger that will sell for about $10.

That’s quite a bit more expensive than your average frozen burger, but proponents point out that while traditional meat might be more affordable, society is paying a cost from an environmental standpoint.

Livestock, particularly beef, consume many precious resources. For example, 70% of the earth’s arable land is used for livestock.

One kilogram of beef requires 15,000 liters of fresh water.

Meat production accounts for 15%-20% of all greenhouse gases.

Experts believe that cultured meat will lead to substantial savings in land and water usage, perhaps as much as 90%.

In addition, lab-grown meat is cruelty-free and may be healthier since it won’t contain antibiotics or other kinds of pharmaceuticals typically used with livestock.

Overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor

No matter how tasty or affordable or environmentally friendly, to succeed, lab-grown meat must appeal to the average consumer.

In 2012, ABC News aired an 11-part series about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), better known as pink slime, because…it looks like pink slime. A highly processed meat byproduct extracted from beef trimmings, pink slime is a filler typically added to regular ground beef.

Americans had been eating it for years and no one seemed to notice.

To make it, manufacturers use chemicals like ammonia or citric acid to kill bacteria.

Despite scientific reports stating that LFTB poses no risk to human health, consumers who saw the news reports were repulsed.

Before the ABC News series aired, LFTB could be found in 70% of beef products sold in the U.S. Just one year later, that number plunged to just 5%.

Though lab-grown meat is in no way similar to LFTB, “pink-slime-gate” taught lab-grown meat producers how essential consumer support will be to the success of their products.

Moments after Post presented his $325,000 burger to the press, a journalist asked him how he planned to overcome the “yuck” factor—referencing consumers willingness to eat lab-grown meat.

Dr. Post’s answer was, “marketing.”

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