By that time, an American scientist had already succeeded in growing a piece of fish filet in a lab. Using a small grant from NASA, which was interested in developing food sources for deep-space voyages, Morris Benjaminson removed skeletal muscle from a common goldfish and grew it outside the fish’s body. Then an associate briefly marinated the explants in olive oil, chopped garlic, lemon and pepper, covered them in bread crumbs and deep-fried them. “A panel of female colleagues gave it a visual and sniff test,” says Benjaminson, now an emeritus professor at Touro College in Bay Shore, N.Y. “It looked and smelled pretty much the same as any fish you could buy at the supermarket.” But NASA, apparently convinced there were easier ways to provide protein to astronauts on long deep-space voyages, declined to further fund Benjaminson’s research.
The Dutch money was used by van Eelen and H. P. Haagsman, a scientist at Utrecht University, to fund a consortium that would aim to show that stem cells could be taken from farm animals, cultured and induced to become skeletal muscle cells. The team included a representative from meat company Meester Stegeman BV, then part of Sara Lee Corporation in Europe, and top scientists at three Dutch universities. Each university studied different aspects of in vitro meat production. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam focused on producing efficient growth media; a group at Utrecht worked on isolating stem cells, making them proliferate and coaxing them into muscle cells; and those at Eindhoven University of Technology attempted to “train” the muscle cells to grow larger.
The scientists made some progress. They were able to grow small, thin strips of muscle tissue in the lab—stuff that looked like bits of scallop and had the chewy texture of calamari—but several obstacles remained to commercial-scale production. “We gained knowledge; we knew a lot more, but we still didn’t have [something that tasted like] a T-bone steak that came from a petri dish,” says Peter Verstrate, who represented Meester Stegeman in the consortium and now works as a consultant. In time, the Dutch money ran out.
Van Eelen now fumes that one scientist involved was “stupid” and others just milked him and the Dutch government for money. “I don’t know what they did in four years—talking, talking, talking—every year taking more of the money,” he says. For their part, the scientists say that van Eelen never understood the scale of the challenge. “He had a naive idea that you could put muscle cells in a petri dish and they would just grow, and if you put money into a project, you’d have meat in a couple of years,” says Bernard Roelen, a cell biologist who worked on the project at Utrecht.
Van Eelen was not the only one who imagined a revolution. In 2005 an article in the New York Times concluded that “in a few years’ time there may be a lab-grown meat ready to market as sausages or patties.” A couple of months before the story appeared, researchers had published the first peer-reviewed article on cultured meat in the journal Tissue Engineering.* The authors included Jason G. Matheny, co-founder of the lab-produced meat advocacy group New Harvest. He understands the challenges better than most. “Tissue engineering is really hard and extremely expensive right now,” he says. “To enjoy market adoption, we mainly need to solve the technical problems that increase the cost of engineered meat.” That will take money, he notes, and few governments or organizations have been willing to commit necessary funding.
*Clarification (5/19/11): The sentence refers to the paper as the first peer-reviewed article on cultured meat; the paper is the first peer-reviewed article on the prospects for industrial production of cultured meat.