Friday, December 17, 2010

Natural’s Not In It

To be clear, I should start by telling you that I’ve never much cared for meat. I deleted it from the menu at age 19 and was completely unfazed by the change. Prior to that I’d favored meat products that were so chopped, burnt and salted that their original source could scarcely be detected. I don’t find steak delicious or barbeque irresistible. I have never wistfully looked at friends eating hamburgers and thought, “Sigh, that could be me.” These days I eat fish from time to time and enjoy it, but if society outlawed the consumption of sea creatures, I doubt I would spend much time mourning the loss. In short, the question of whether or not scientists will be able to produce in vitro meat is not really my problem. I won’t be eating it either way.

Many of my fellow humans don’t share my preferences. People around the world can’t seem to get enough meat, and the growing demand for it threatens not only the health of the consumers and the quality of life of the consumed, but also the planet we all occupy. (So I guess this subject may affect me after all, beyond just the level of scientific curiosity.) The inefficiency of meat production is no secret. 70% of agricultural land is allotted to livestock farming, mostly to supply food for these animals. More than double the amount of water and energy is required to support a meat-eating diet than a vegetarian one. How do we go about fixing this issue? Some think the answer lies in finding a way to grow meat without growing animals.

In vitro meat is real muscle tissue grown from stem cells of animals.* While being able to grow a steak in a Petri dish would theoretically eliminate many of the problems of traditional meat production, it is (as with many laboratory endeavors) more complicated than it might initially sound. Scientists in the Netherlands had been dutifully working toward assembling the world’s first in vitro sausage, but came up with only about a tenth of the material needed when their funding ran out last year. The logistics of lab-grown meat are complicated, especially with the ultimate goal being the ability to grow meat on a large enough scale to meet the demands of a carnivorous populace. For one thing, an animal-free growth medium must be found. Regular cell-culture medium is made from fetal calf serum and thus using it would require, well, cows. This hardly solves the problem of maintaining livestock. So far the best contender is a medium made from maitake mushrooms. Additionally, just letting stem cells proliferate yields a limp, texture-less product. The lab-grown tissue needs exercise to resemble that from live animals. This can be accomplished by regularly administering an electrical current to the growing cells. But of course this process requires electricity, not to mention that it would likely fuel the “Frankenfoods” name-calling that will inevitably greet in vitro meat at its grand debut.

Despite these hurdles, some victories have already been reported. In 2002, scientists successfully grew goldfish fillets in a laboratory using whole muscle biopsy pieces rather than isolated stem cells. The samples grew between 13% and 79% (depending on the type of culture medium used), which makes the experiment sound more like meat amplification than the creation of in vitro meat. It’s sort of like the Bible story about the loaves and fishes, except in this version Jesus dons a lab coat, cuts the fish into small slices, centrifuges the slices into pellets and lets them sit in growth medium for week. Amen. After growing the fillets, the team marinated them in lemon, pepper, garlic and olive oil and fried them (I am not making this up, it’s in the Methods and Material section of their article) and presented them to a panel to be viewed and smelled, though not tasted.† The observers concluded that the product appeared to be edible. Not bad, considering that people aren’t exactly queuing up to eat goldfish from any source.

Taste and public willingness to ingest such a new and novel form of meat are potentially bigger stumbling blocks than any of the technical problems that have thus far arisen. Lab-grown meat is doomed to be perceived as “unnatural”. At this stage, scientists are mostly working on making an in vitro version of processed meat. Because the muscle can only be grown to a limited thickness without creating some sort of artificial vascular structure, steaks are still very far from being realized. The current goal is to make enough thin strips to grind up, flavor and assemble into something like a sausage or a patty. It doesn’t sound especially appetizing. However, consider what consumers already tolerate (not always knowingly) in processed meat made from real animals. Let’s examine how natural the common hamburger is.

Once upon a time, ground beef was made by taking a piece of beef and putting it through a meat grinder. Simple enough. And while the best cuts of beef may not have been selected for this honor, it was at least a single piece of meat from a single cow. With the rise of factory farming and the push for more and cheaper meat, things have gotten a bit messier. A package of ground beef purchased from a modern supermarket is a grim potpourri of meat products from multiple cows, slaughter houses, cities and countries. Much of the meat used in ground beef is what is referred to as “fatty trimmings”. These are parts cut off from higher-grade meat. They come from sections of the animal that are the most susceptible to E. coli contamination. In order to offer the consumer a lower-fat ground beef (something more comparable to what could be made by grinding whole cuts of high-grade meat) these trimmings can be mixed with processed “texturized beef product”, a substance made by centrifuging fatty trimmings. (Look! A centrifuge, just like in the lab.) About a decade ago, an innovation made it possible to sell trimming that would previously have been usable only in pet food, due to their high bacterial content. This ingenious method involved simply adding ammonia to the product to kill bacteria. Ammonia, in case you’ve forgotten, is the chemical you use to clean your toilet. Miraculously, the FDA approved this as safe and, since ammonia is considered a “processing agent”, it needn’t even appear on the ingredients of processed beef.‡

The lab-grown meat is starting to sound pretty tasty, isn’t it? If nothing else, it’s at least free of E. coli. Real animals have digestive systems that house this bacteria. Muscle grown in a Petri dish doesn’t generate solid waste, thus eliminating the problem of elimination. But if bad PR doesn’t thwart in vitro meat, cost likely will. So far the research is expensive and there is no solid plan for making the product cheaper than the already rock-bottom (in price and quality) meat pastiches of our modern world. The obvious question is whether creating meat that is kinder to the environment and to animals is even the right approach. Given all the possible hindrances, it might actually be easier convince society to reduce its meat consumption. I wouldn’t expect meat enthusiasts to give up the product entirely, but the low quality of the meat being consumed says something about its erroneously-perceived necessity. Are people really so desperate to consume this substance that they’re willing to buy beef soaked in toilet cleaner? Maybe meat should be an occasional splurge rather than a daily dietary requirement. Much of the scary processed beef I described in this article is sold to cash-strapped public schools that need to cut back on the cost of their lunch programs. Why not just go the extra step and not buy meat at all?

As for which is more sick and wrong, in vitro meat or regular processed meat, it’s up for debate. One of the more creative objections to lab-grown meat I encountered while researching this article was the possibility of cannibalism. If one can grow muscle tissue from pig or cow explants without killing the animals, one could also grow human meat. In fact, there’s no reason a person couldn’t grow meat from tissue samples from their own body. Given the bizarre items that adventurous gourmands will go out of their way to eat, lab-grown human flesh doesn’t seem out of the question.§ But there is no need to address these ethical concerns yet. We’ve yet to even finish that lab sausage. It’s just food for thought. Bon appetite.

* Thus far this has been done using adult stems cells, which have already differentiated into a specific tissue type (in this case muscle). Unlike the pluripotent embryonic stem cells you hear about in the news, adult stem cells are not immortal. They have a finite number of cell divisions in them before they expire.

† Society is still somewhat unclear as to whether or not it is legal to eat what is still an experimental product. If anyone gave in to curiosity and took a bite of the fried goldfish before feeding it to the trash, they wouldn’t be encouraged to disclose their observations to us.

‡ The punch line to this story is that, following complaints about the nasty smell and taste of ammonia, the processors reduced the amount of the chemical being added to levels that may not be sufficient to kill bacteria. So there is now simultaneously too much and not enough ammonia in America’s hamburgers.

§ Cheese fermented by live maggots (Casu Frazigu), coffee made from beans ingested and excreted by exotic mammals (Kopi Luwak), deliberately rotten eggs (“century egg”). The list goes on.

Who told you this?

Jones, N. 2010. “A Taste of Things to Come?” Nature 468: 752-753.

Marloes, L.P. et al. 2010. “Meet the New Meat: Tissue Engineered Skeletal Muscle.” Trends in Food Science & Technology 21: 59-66.

Benjaminson, M.A. et al. 2002. “In Vitro Edible Muscle Protein Production System (MPPS): Stage 1, Fish.” Acta Astronautica 51: 879-889.

Hopkins, P.D. and Dacey, A. 2008. “Vegetarian Meat: Could Technology Save Animals and Satisfy Meat Eaters.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 21: 579-596.

Moss, M. “The Burger That Shattered Her Life.” The New York Times. October 3, 2009.

Moss, M. “Safety of Beef Processing Method is Questioned.” The New York Times. December 30, 2009.


  1. This all stems from Sandy Gordon's "Chicken in a Vat".

  2. this was really helpful. also, i'm going to think twice about eating meat again........