Where’s the beef? Would you believe ... growing in a laboratory?

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It sounds like a Halloween-time science fiction/horror movie when you first hear about it, but some people see it as a way of addressing both animal welfare issues and environmental concerns. I’m talking about growing meat for human consumption from stem cells harvested from a cow.

This so-called “cultured beef” recently was unveiled in London by a group led by Mark Post, a physiologist at the Netherland’s Maastricht University.

It’s been known for a while that an anonymous donor contributed money toward an effort to grow a hamburger patty in a laboratory. That donor is now unmasked as Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

“Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view the world,” Brin said as quoted by National Public Radio.

Industrial meat production in feedlots puts demands on the environment. Creating meat in a lab could, at least in theory, decrease the environmental cost of creating protein for the world’s increasing population.

“Our current meat production is at a maximum and it’s not going to be sustainable,” Post said to reporters. “We need to come up with an alternative.”

After three months of work, Post and his colleagues had a cultured beef patty to unveil to two tasters and invited guests — mostly journalists.

The hamburger started life as stem cells in a cow’s shoulder. The cells were separated from others and grown in a medium that contained antibiotics to prevent the flourishing of bacteria. As time unfolded, the cells grew and divided. Using some “scaffolding” provided to them, the cells organized themselves into muscle fibers. All told, about 20,000 muscle fibers went into the hamburger patty.

It should be obvious the lab-grown burger is real meat. It’s not a soy-based burger or anything a vegetarian could eat. But because it has no blood cells in it, the burger would naturally be quite light colored. As reported by Business Insider, to compensate for the color the burger’s makers added saffron and beet juice to make the hamburger more red.

Food scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald were chosen to be the tasters at the public unveiling of the burger. The event was done with considerable pizazz. In addition to media hoopla like streamed video, a top chef cooked up the burger in front of a live audience.

Rutzler and Schonwald reportedly thought the patty had the basic texture of meat. It lacked fat because it was grown entirely from muscle cells. Fat lends flavor to beef so perhaps it’s no surprise the tasters thought the flavor of the patty fell a bit short.

The medium used to grow the cells had animal products in it. According to NPR, Post says he is at work on a non-animal medium that could be used in the future. That would be one key to making the new approach to meat kinder on the environment than our current practice of raising cattle for slaughter.

You and I won’t get a chance to taste-test a lab-made burger any time soon. Post needs to bring down the price — currently at about $31 per pound, and to decrease the time it takes to grow the meat.

“We need to show that we can make it more efficient,” Post said as quoted by NPR. “But we think we can have a more affordable price and have this in supermarkets in 10 to 20 years.”

There are challenges yet to be addressed. Somehow adding fat to the muscle protein would improve texture and flavor. And the economics of the project may only move forward if major food companies start to invest in it. Finally, to be successful in the marketplace the lab-grown burger would have to overcome hesitancy on the part of some people who simply find the idea of manufactured meat to be “icky.”

However, I’m sure that some people will welcome the new approach to producing meat. The industrial route of raising cattle on ranches and then in feedlots doesn’t appeal to many people concerned with animal welfare issues or environmental impact.

But the novelty of tasting a burger produced in a lab rather than in a feedlot has considerable appeal to me.

E. Kirsten Peters, Ph.D., a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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