PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently offered a million dollar prize for growing a saleable quantity of artificial chicken in vitro, slabs of meat grown in a laboratory destined for human consumption. The aim: to produce a meat product identical to "real" chicken meat without any involvement from a free-roaming chicken apart from the unwilling donation of a few starter cells.
The New York Times' knee-jerk reaction was to practically republish the same article the last time something interesting in the world of lab-grown meats came around in 2006. Slate has two of the more insightful articles: one decrying the idea as a poorly conceived prize and economically unviable in the given time frame; the other strangely optimistic. Neither source investigated whether meat from a vat is a taste sensation.
Meat (or at least muscle tissue without veins or bone) has been grown in a lab with varying degrees of success for quite some time but never for commercial sale as food. The process boils down to harvesting and proliferating some original cells (embryonic myoblasts or adult skeletal muscle satellite cells) from the animal of choice, attaching them to a fabric-like scaffold to hold them together and then running a rich and juicy gravy of culture medium over them*. The fabric can be stretched so that the cells arrange into myotubes and then myofibres, making it loosely recognizable as the muscle that would otherwise grow on a more familiar animal.
On the ethical front, eating lab-grown flesh had been given the thumbs up a few years earlier by ethicist Peter Singer:
If, one day, cultured meat becomes an efficient way of producing food, we see no ethical objection to it. Granted the original cells will have come from an animal, but since the cells can continue to divide indefinitely, that one animal could, in theory, produce enough cells to supply the entire world with meat. No animal will suffer in order to provide you with your meal.**
Everything in Peter Singer's statement is true, apart from the final sentence.
The culture medium that is used to grow artificial meat is made from fetal cattle. If you're currently growing meat in a lab, you're essentially making meat with other meat, reducing a larger animal into a miniscule sliver of flesh. You'll need an obscene number of fetal cows to produce a saleable amount of meat because the process is about as efficient as raising a chicken, eating a single but perfectly-formed feather and then throwing the rest of the bird away.
If PETA (or Peter) had delved into the Journal of Tissue Engineering, I'm sure that they'd be mortified to know that hundreds (if not thousands) of litres of liquefied cow would be needed to produce a kilo of meat using current techniques. No vegetable or mineral replacement for the calf serum looks at all promising. The utopian vision of having a bread machine-sized bioreactor in every home, generating aged porterhouse on command, does not look as tempting to the vegan set if you have to pour a drum of calf extract into it to kick start the process. It doesn't look hugely attractive to a committed carnivore either.
Obviously the current techniques aren't aimed at the estimable vegan ethicist or even the most amoral bacontarian; they are harnessed for the more important task of growing human body parts for human transplantation, an ethical minefield when we start to weigh the value of human lives against those of animals. But beyond the question of ethics (and more relevant to this food blog), how does vat-grown meat taste? And why is taste so rarely central to these debates?
The most hopeful of the lab meat farmers namely, Jason Metheny from Soylent-Greenish-sounding New Harvest, hopes that the first few vat grown products to hit the shelves will be "traditionally processed meats as hamburger, sausage,chicken nuggets or fish sticks" which hardly sets the bar too high in terms of tastiness and suggests that the man has never eaten a truly great sausage nor considered that all these products already function to turn meat waste into tasty treats.
There are eight people on earth who have already eaten lab-grown flesh, and artist and tissue scientist Oron Catts at the University of Western Australia is one of those few. As part of the Tissue Culture and Art Project's Disembodied Cuisine, he was part of the team that grew some frog meat on a slide, fried it up and ate it as a part of a "feast" to end their project into the uneasy relationship of meat and science. Following earlier successes in 2001 at growing lamb in a lab, Catts and his team grew coin-sized frog steak in 2003 at a cost of roughly $650 a gram, just millimeters thick.
"We grew the frog meat on a matrix which was like fabric and didn't exercise the muscles," Catts says. To grow like a living muscle, the matrix needs to be stretched. At the end of the two and a half month exhibition, the matrix had not fully broken down and remained quite intact.
They fried the thumbnails of frogmeat in garlic and honey with a dash of Calvados, a recipe which they named "a la Davis" in honour of a fellow bio-artist Joe Davis whose frog muscle-powered ornithopter failed to launch on ethical grounds, a process as cruel as marinating dead amphibian in honey and eating it.
The Lilliputian amphibian steaks were served with a selection of herbs, also lab-grown from plant tissue culture. Eight people sat down to this micro-degustation. The results were a success, at least in terms of replicating an uneasy relationship.
"Four people spat it out. I was very pleased"
As for the sensation of eating lab-grown meat: "It tasted like jelly on fabric."
* - It is of course, much more complex than that to grow meat in a lab and it's also not gravy, it's liquified fetal cow parts. There are a few different tactics to growing muscular tissue. If you want a summary of growing meat in a laboratory, read "In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production" P.D. Edelman, M.Sc., D.C. MC Farland, Ph.D., V.A. Mironov, Ph.D., M.D., and J.G. Matheny, M.P.H., TISSUE ENGINEERING, Volume 11, Number 5/6, 2005. Then you can complain about the huge amount of science that I summarized into a single blithe paragraph.
** - Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, text publishing, 2006, p.237