This summer saw the unveiling of the world’s first “stem cell burger,” with decidedly mixed results
Author Peter Guest Illustration Monica Ramos
When Mark Post stepped awkwardly onto a hyper-lit stage in a West London television studio this past August, he did so with the trepidation of a cooking show contestant hoping his creation will delight the judges. If he was nervous, it was understandable.
A professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Post was about to introduce the world’s most expensive and historically significant hamburger—a patty that represented five years of work and a $330,000 investment and which, while technically beef, had never been attached to a cow.
What Post and his fellow researchers had created, knitted together from 20,000 strands of lab-grown muscle protein, was radical—a proof-of-concept prototype that could revolutionize how we eat. His experiment aims to demonstrate that mankind can grow meat without the messy interim steps of raising, slaughtering and processing animals.
The unveiling had the theatrics of a film launch, with a national news anchor hosting the event at Riverside Studios, an ugly set of Thames-side warehouses that is better known for producing TV game shows. The setting added to the artificiality of the occasion, as did the assembled circus of journalists picking at the sandwiches, making weak jokes about the limp meat within and interviewing each other for soundbites.
The star of the show—that is, the burger—started its life in 2008, when the Dutch government provided funding for a program to produce “in-vitro” meat. To make the burger, the attendees learned, stem cells had been taken from cow muscle and placed in a nutrient solution to encourage tissue growth. These cells were then arranged into a donut shape on a gel base, where they grew into strands.
But there was another star at the launch as well. When the original funding dried up, in 2010, an anonymous donor stepped in. On the morning of the launch, the mysterious benefactor was revealed to be Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who appeared on a screen wearing a Google Glass headset.
The chef who’d been chosen to cook the burger, Richard McGeown—clearly nervous at handling a $330,000 order—started frying the meat, giving updates on its status while an infomercial about the cultivation process, complete with fast-moving graphics, electronic music and the reassuring baritone of a voiceover artist, described the patty as a “transformative” development. But the audience seemed more concerned with how it tasted.
The burger, which had been mixed with beet juice and saffron to “bring out the natural colors,” was finally sampled by a couple of food experts, both of whom voiced issues with its texture and flavor (without the benefit of a circulatory system, the patty had none of the blood or fat that make a real hamburger succulent). Such quibbles, however, are not the biggest obstacle the burger will have to overcome if it’s going to challenge the Big Mac.
There is an inevitable squeamishness about food products that appear to be the result of tampering with nature (already terms like “Frankenburger” are making the rounds). But Isha Datar, who heads New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to research on alternative sources of meat, argues that such characterizations miss the point. “Cultured meat is more like growing plants hydroponically than it is like genetically modifying them,” she says. “It’s creating the same product but through a different process.” Post, meanwhile, suggested that just as some food is certified as “Fair Trade,” cultured beef could be sold with a “Cruelty Free” label. Brin, for his part, talked in broad terms about the industrial slaughter of animals, which struck a chord with people like Dr. Iain Brassington, a lecturer in bioethics at the U.K.’s University of Manchester, who pointed out that “a cow that doesn’t exist can’t suffer.”
Cultured meat, though, is not just about assuaging consumer guilt—there are environmental concerns, too. Producing a quarter-pound burger requires around 7 pounds of animal feed, 600 gallons of water and 75 square feet of land. It also releases around 13 pounds of CO2 into the air. As much as 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to meat production, and 26 percent of the world’s land is used for grazing. We are, say researchers, approaching a “Peak Meat” scenario, a point at which the world simply cannot sustain such practices.
Meeting this demand with lab-grown alternatives, however, works only if the new product is affordable and at least somewhat like the real thing. The early reviews, unfortunately, were scarcely glowing. Taster Josh Schonwald said the patty was like “an animal protein cake,” while McGeown, the chef who cooked it, later admitted, “From a gastronomical view, it needs work.”
PETER GUEST is a London-based journalist who writes frequently on the environment. He enjoys his spot at the top of the food chain.