Will lab-grown meat be petri-dish of the day?

Rhys Clayton explores the research behind the creation of the world’s first lab-grown burger and contemplates whether it will be a success

I love a good burger. However, I’m not sure I fancy tucking into a lab-grown patty, something that could be a reality by the end of the year.

The aforementioned burger is the brainchild of scientists from the University of Maastricht. Cow muscle and fat stem cells have been used to grow the resulting £250, 000 minced meat.

It won’t come as a surprise that Heston “Snail Porridge” Blumenthal is the designated chef in charge of cooking said burger for a “mystery guest”.

In layman’s terms, the process used to obtain the meat starts by extracting stem cells from cow muscle tissue and growing them in flasks in the laboratory. The resulting cells are grown in a culture medium which contains the nutrients necessary for the cells to multiply and develop.

The slivers of muscles that result are grown on a collagen gel between pieces of Velcro and are able to contract as they grow, resulting in a 3D tissue.

To increase the protein content of the cells (which improves the texture of the meat), they are shocked with an electric current.

The team have so far grown 3cm long, one and a half millimetre wide and half a millimetre thick sheets of cow muscle. To make the anticipated burger, it will take three thousand pieces of muscle and several hundred pieces of fatty tissue.

I think the natural human reaction to this project would be “uch a fi”, or for those of you not familiar with the Welsh dialect, “yuk”. However, the more I think about it, the more feasible it becomes. Surely, eating lab-grown meat cannot be worse than slaughtering animals?

There is no doubt that the British love meat and fish. Stereotypical British meals are Fish and Chips, a beef roast, and anywhere north of Birmingham, a meat pie. Regional generalisations aside, it has been estimated that every year, each Briton eats about 85kg of meat, which amounts to 33 chickens, one pig, three-quarters of a sheep, and a fifth of a cow. Between 1961 and 2007, British meat consumption increased by 20%, and this trend shows no sign of stopping.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the population stood at roughly 1.6 billion, and the figure now nudges seven billion. This has of course placed phenomenal pressure on food producers, and as Chinese and Indian people continue to adopt more Westernised diets, the demand for meat is going to keep rising.

“Grow Your Own” meat is looking like an increasingly feasible option, rather than inflationary prices or more genetically modified, growth hormone-injected, additive pumped meat.

A test-tube burger, would, by nature, be grown in controlled conditions in an efficient manner. In contrast, livestock is a very inefficient way of converting vegetable matter to animal protein with cows and pigs having an efficiency rate of only 15%.

Project leader, Dr Mark Post said, “If we can increase the efficiency from 15% to 50%, it would be a tremendous leap forward.”

Equally, the ethical benefits are abundant. These could include reduced deforestation, decreased global warming from 80-95%, lower greenhouse gases, less fresh water scarcity and loss of biodiversity, reduction in illegal poaching, fewer fauna based diseases, and a healthier, better quality ‘meat’ with less fat from the controlled conditions.

The ‘deep-pocketed’ financial backer of the project is unclassified. Who knows, it could be vegetarian Sir Paul McCartney, or former veggie, Meat Loaf (not sure how you can be a veggie with a name like Meat Loaf)?

It must be pointed out that it is still unclear whether the project may still be off-limits to stringent vegetarians, as the source material comes from animals that will likely have suffered.

With further enhancements and testing, it is hoped that the price can be set at an affordable level to the masses, giving consumers a choice akin to the option of whether to buy free range or cage eggs. With the cultured meat competing with Quorn and Soya meat.

However, there are still kinks to be flattened out. At the moment, the appearance of the burger leaves a lot to be desired: it is currently an “unappetising half-millimetre thick strap of lab-grown pinky-yellow meat”. Now, call me old fashioned, but I like my burger a healthy, slightly charcoaled brown!

The jovial ire and general cynicism I have displayed in this article is perhaps a tad unfair. The ultimate aim is to create a burger indistinguishable from your average Whopper. And for those with an uncultured palate, like myself, I have every faith in the visionaries at Maastricht.

After all, given the choice between my under/overcooked roast dinner or my too salty/unsalty Bolognese, or a lab-grown burger, I would choose the stem celled, bovined, pinky-yellowed ‘meat’ every time.

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