Fall 2013

The $330,000 Hamburger

Lab-grown beef isn’t as tasty as the real deal

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Illustration: Ryan Snook

Not that anyone’s asking for it under the golden arches or anywhere else right now, but a hamburger patty grown entirely in the laboratory was served at a taste test in London recently and left people thinking about what might satisfy tomorrow’s appetites. Two volunteers who sampled the burger—an Austrian nutritionist and a U.S. journalist—said the texture of the thing was fine, but flavor was lacking; both said they would have liked some salt, pepper, cheese or onions to excite the taste buds more, the Associated Press reported.

Mark Post, the Dutch scientist who grew the meat from cattle stem cells in his lab over a five-year period, didn’t take the criticism personally: “It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start.” Post noted that producing meat this way has the potential to help feed the world while also mitigating climate change. Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, funded the $330,000 project out of a personal concern for animal welfare. “We’re trying to create the first cultured-beef hamburger,” he said in a statement at the time of the taste test.

Post’s research team made the meat from shoulder muscle cells of two organically raised cows. The cells were put into a nutrient solution to help them develop into muscle tissue, and they eventually grew into small strands of meat. It took nearly 20,000 strands to make the single five-ounce patty used for the taste test. The burger came to the table seasoned with salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs; red beet juice and saffron were added for coloring.

“I’m a vegetarian, but I would be first in line to try this,” said Jonathan Garlick, director of the Center for Integrated Tissue Engineering at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, when an AP reporter asked him to comment on the lab burger. Garlick has used similar stem cell techniques to grow human skin in the lab, but wasn’t involved in the hamburger research.

Experts say that new and better ways of producing meat—apart, that is, from enormous herds of animals grazing on large tracts of land, consuming natural resources as they go—are needed to satisfy the world’s steadily growing appetite. By 2050, it is predicted that global meat consumption will double as more people in developing countries are able to afford it. Raising feed for livestock now takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land in the United States.

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