Lab grown meat? Surely it's a matter of taste...

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

"We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up," says Julian Savulescu. I agree.
"We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up," says Julian Savulescu. I agree.

Related tags: In vitro meat

I think everybody agrees that in vitro production of meat could have big potential in solving world hunger. But the technology will not be to everybody's tastes ... and until the technical challenges of flavour are addressed I imagine it will be to nobody's tastes!

Earlier this week Professor Mark Post and his team definitively showed the world media that it is possible to grow strands of cow muscle in vitro​ and then mush them up to make a burger.

That alone is a wonderful achievement. But will this breakthrough really transform the way we eat?

I'm not so sure. It certainly has the potential to quite literally save the world from starvation (if pricing issues are overcome). But then so do GM technologies, and they have hardly been accepted with open arms.

Perfecting the taste

The first thing I must say is that the responses of people who tasted the cultured beef burger this week did not fill me with excitement.

Apparently it was a bit bland. But the texture was good, and I guess that's a bonus.

Cultured Beef 8_fn
Chef Richard McGeown told me that he woud 'have no hesitation' in making a burger with the fine mince grown by Professor Post - adding in some fat and spices to boot.

Can the flavour be improved? Without doubt.

In fact Richard McGeown, the chef who cooked the burger, told me that had he been given a pile of plain 'in vitro mince'​ rather than a pre-made burger he could have fashioned a supremely tasty treat by adding in some onion, spices, and other yummy bits and pieces that are usually found in a burger.

Of course, as a 'proof of principle' this one didn't warrant it. The researchers wanted to show off a 'pure' lab grown burger. I hope we all understand that point.

In the real world, once the meat was grown, any product made with it would be formulated with flavour and taste perception as the key. This was not done, but would be in commercial production.

I am confident that when - not if - the food industry eventually take this idea on, they will sort out any taste issues with ease.

A taste for ethics?

There is still, however, a massive debate to be had when it comes to the wider acceptance of a lab grown burger; not just from a taste, or even a safety point of view - but also from an ethical one.

The meat grown by Post in his lab used stem cell technology to generate up to 10kilos of beef muscle tissue from just two or three stem cells taken from organically reared prize cows. Given its source, the meat is theoretically of great 'quality' - and it never harms the cows.

But would you eat it? Would a vegetarian eat it? Would you feed it to your kids, or a pregnant woman?

Let's start with the easy one. Personally, I see no reason why people who consume cheap beef burgers made with off cuts of cow would not want this burger. I'd eat one. In fact I was disappointed to not have had chance of a nibble earlier this week.

In theory, it's a much better quality burger. Once you get over the 'lab-grown gross' factor its actually quite exciting. No more ground up cow anus and testicle (or horse?) in your burger - just lovely bits of muscle from an organic cow.

Just to clarify: Not that there is anything wrong with beef off cuts, and I actually quite like the taste of horse ... but that's for another comment I'm sure.

IMG_1535_FN
The Cultured Beef is grown from stem cells but is identical to beef from an conventionally reared cow.

So what about the veggies? Several I have spoken to said that they would consider it. Given that there is zero cruelty to animals. Indeed, PETA and the Vegetarian Society have already expressed support for the idea.

PETA is so enthusiastic about this technology - which Professor Post estimates could slash the need for livestock by a million fold - that it has now thrown down the gauntlet to science.

"PETA is offering a $1 million reward to the first scientist to produce and bring to market in vitro chicken meat,"​ reads a PETA statement.

Why? Because while beef production might have the biggest environmental impact, but chicken production is the cruellest, says PETA.

Meanwhile, Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, UK, also came out in support of the idea of cultured meat: “Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier,"​ said Savulescu. "We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up."

He suggested that the advent of lab grown meats could see a sharp rise in 'ethical veganism' - "as one could avoid eating real meat without sacrificing an integral part of many people’s diet."

meat
Would cultured meat, that did not have animal welfare issues be acceptable for vegetarians? I'm not so sure...

"Indeed, this may be a watershed moment for animal welfare – if artificial meat manages to catch on and take over a large portion of the market,"​ he said.

So, would a vegetarian eat it? I'm still not still not so sure.

Perhaps those who chose to avoid meat for purely animal welfare reasons might switch to a diet that could also include in vitro​ meat. But there are many who chose to avoid meat for other reasons, for example health.

High consumption of red meat is linked with a number of health issues. In the same way that I see no obvious reason why in vitro​ meat would cause safety problems (it's just meat after all), I also assume that eating lab grown meat would carry similar risks to eating meat from a cow that has been sent to slaughter.

I guess in that respect it really will be a matter of personal preference, then. A matter of taste.

What do YOU think?​ Leave your comments below.

Nathan Gray is the science reporter for FoodNavigator.com and NutraIngredients.com. He has written on key areas of food science and nutrition impacting the global food and nutritional supplements industry – including flavour formulation, sodium reduction, gut health, and the links between nutrition and disease states. Nathan has a degree in Human Biosciences, specialising in nutrition. You can tweet him @nathanrgray

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3 comments

Ethics & Cash Power

Posted by Max Asante-Fosuhene,

I had ever imagine its coming but not so soon. 15 years working at Tissue Culture Lab and producing in-vitro Cocoa and Pineapple Plant in Ghana,
and enjoying them as well. It was envisaged that one day meat will come on board. The problem is not who it feeds(poor majority)who can't afford taken into account the in-vitro production cost. Don't tell me that's less expensive-I know!

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in vitro meat

Posted by Dries de Klerk,

Even more sensible than the need and joy to be able to fly. A much delayed technology to be commercialized rather sooner than later.The Dairy industry will in the mean time be the the source of slaughtered animal meat. This is until the the milk producing cells are industrialized. We are on our way to the inevitable ultimate cyber life!

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Stem cell alteration?

Posted by M.T. Unij,

Nathan Gray links to Genetic Modification in his article. Yes, in many parts of the world, GM is not accepted. Most parts however, have embraced GM foods. According to me, altering DNA from its natural form, is more of an ethical question than multiplying healthy stem cells into meat.

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