Sci-fi fans and animal-rights activists alike have been announcing its arrival for decades, but in a world where food scientists are still trying to figure out the best ways to extend the life of cake, it’s hard to imagine that meat created in a petri dish might gain a place on our dinner plates anytime soon. Yet, today in London Mark Post, a vascular physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, allowed two independent tasters to sample a hamburger patty he had grown in his lab. "It had a familiar mouthfeel," said food writer and journalist Josh Schonwald, after biting into a piece of the cooked meat in front of reporters. "[The difference] is the absence of fat." Both tasters were careful not to comment on whether the burger was "good" or not.
The hamburger was grown in Post's lab using bovine skeletal muscle stem cells, collected from a piece of fresh beef. To do this, the cells were “fed” calf serum and commercially available growth medium to initiate multiplication and prompt them to develop into muscle cells over time. Once they differentiated into muscle cells, they were given simple nutrient sources, such as algae extracts. The scientists also exercised the resulting muscle strands in a bioreactor by affixing them to a soluble sugar scaffold and slowly built tension using doughnut-shaped anchor points—essentially helping the muscle to “bulk up.”
The resulting five-ounce burger, cooked by chef Richard McGeown, was made using 20,000 strips of cultured meat—about 40 billion cow cells—and took about three months to produce, "which is faster than [raising] a cow,” Post joked. The most impressive number associated with the burger, however, is its $325,000 price tag, donated by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.
Post is hopeful that he will one day get the cost down to a more competitive price point. “We have done some calculations where we came up with a $70-per-kilo price tag with the current technology," Post notes. "That gives me sufficient confidence that eventually we can scale [the production] up and make it at a reasonable price.” But don't expect to find Post's lab-grown meat on your local supermarket shelf in the near future. The goal of the press conference was to show the world that the technology is available, said Post, who added “to improve it, it will take us probably 10 to 20 years to get it to supermarkets.”
To get the burger ready for the London taste test today, Post mixed saffron and beet juice, for color, into the strands of meat. The burger itself was prepared in a traditional manner involving bread crumbs and a binder. The patty was then cooked in front of reporters using sunflower oil and butter, which led the second taster, nutrition scientist Hanni Rützler of Michigan Technological University, to lament the absence of salt and pepper. "[The taste] is close to meat," said Rützler, after chewing the freshly prepared meat. "I thought the consistency would be very different. I thought it would be much softer."
Post did not seem too worried about the tasters' reactions. “I think it's a very good start," he said. "This was just to prove that we can do it. I am very happy about it.” Post now hopes to work on improving the flavor by cultivating fat tissue. "A lot of the juiciness and flavor comes from fat," Post noted. "It will take another couple of months before we have that down."
For the Dutch researcher, the main reason for exploring this method of meat production is to provide an answer to the mounting food crisis. According to the World Health Organization, the demand for meat will double over the course of the next 40 years. This is a big problem because more than 70 percent of agricultural land is currently being used for livestock production, leaving little room for crops destined for human consumption. Post also points out that lab-cultured meat will help lower methane production, which contributes to climate change.
Although many questions remain as to how the Post and his two lab technicians will manage to mass-produce the meat at a cost that would give ordinary consumers a reasonable alternative to farm-raised beef, one thing is certain: the meat he is producing is not geared toward vegetarians. "We are catering toward letting beef eaters eat beef in an environmentally friendly and ethical way," he says. "Let the vegetarians stay vegetarians—it's even more environmentally friendly than eating cultured meat."