Will Stem Cell Burgers Go Mainstream?

Dave Dugdale

Scientists are currently working on developing an alternative to conventional meat. No, this isn’t flavored soy-based tofurkey or anything like that; it’s actual meat. Instead of raising animals, researchers can use the animal’s stem cells and generate meat.

A new paper from Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper, both of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, explores the practical aspects of lab-grown meat and where the research stands now. The paper was published in Science & Society.

Laboratory meat admittedly doesn’t sound very enticing on the surface, but environmentalists, animal rights activists, and even NASA have been awaiting a commercially-viable alternative to conventional meat using stem cells. The product is typically referred to as “schmeat” due to the fact that it grows in sheets. Without an animal’s skeleton, the cells remain flat as they differentiate into muscle tissue.

The journey to lab meat started nearly 20 years ago when NASA was approved by the FDA to begin developing meat for use during long-term space missions. In 2008, PETA announced a prize of US$1 million to anyone who could create stem-cell derived chicken meat. The deadline of March 4, 2014 has passed without a winner awarded, but even without prize money, researchers are still hard at work. 

Schmeat could also begin to make up for the large environmental drawbacks to raising livestock, as it takes a tremendous amount of food, water, and energy to raise and process all of that meat. Additionally, the methane produced in the gastrointestinal system of the livestock is adding considerably to greenhouse gas emissions. In vitro meat could reduce energy consumption by 45%, greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, and land use by 99%.

Last summer, Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands demonstrated a significant advance on the quest for stem cell-derived meat by hosting the world’s most expensive barbecue in London. Two food critics and one chef were invited to try the schmeat burger. While the product wasn’t necessarily horrible, there is room for improvement. While the texture was good, the patty wasn’t really juicy. With each serving priced at about $385,000, it’s still a way’s off from being commercially viable. 

One large obstacle that the developers need to consider is the lack of flavor, and all of the implications that come along with it. This isn’t quite as simple as just sprinkling some salt and pepper. Without the naturally-occurring fat in the schmeat, fillers and substitutes will have to be used, making it more of a “meat product” than meat; the Velveeta of meat, if you will. Researchers will need to add animal fat into the growth process to resolve this issue and improve the product.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the use of antibiotics when making the schmeat. As  in vitro meat does not benefit from having the animal’s natural immune system to keep harmful bacteria at bay, the researchers must use antibiotics. However, as the World Health Organization has recently issued a report on the global rise of antibacterial resistance, schmeat developers will need to tread carefully. This issue also applies to conventional livestock, as they consume 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States. 

It’s hard to speculate about the future of schmeat and if it will be able to overcome the “ick” factor of originating in a laboratory, though hopefully with improvements in the product and public education, that won’t be much of an issue by the time it is available for the general public (which is probably still another decade or two away). With the ever-rising population and demand for meat at an all-time high, something in the environmentally-unfriendly system we have currently will have to change. Is schmeat the answer, or at least part of the answer? Only time will tell. 

[Dave Dugdale’s image “Burgers on the Grill” used in accordance with CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr]

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