Scientists at Washington State University have made history at the grill this month, by cooking up the first sausages in the US to be made with meat from gene-edited pigs.
Once upon a time, chowing down on the charred corpse of some deer or mammoth you recently brought down on a hunting trip with your buddy Ogg was just a normal, unquestioned part of life. Things were simple.
Today, things have changed dramatically: the meat industry is now public enemy number one when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from food production; plant-based diets have never been more popular; and even those who still feel the need to eat genuine animal flesh are able to do so without ever causing a panicked moo or oink from a real live critter.
It’s into this futuristic foodscape that the new sausage is being launched. The first of their kind, the German-style porky tubes are made with meat from gene-edited pigs – something that has never before been allowed for human consumption.
For Jon Oatley, a professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, it’s a vital step for the future of meat consumption – not only from a technological point of view, but also a bureaucratic one.
“The original intent in making these animals was to try to improve the way that we feed people,” he said in a recent statement. “And we can’t do that unless we can work with the FDA system to get these animals actually into the food chain.”
The public likely won’t be getting their hands on a packet of future-pork any time soon, though. At the moment, the FDA authorization for the meat is only “investigational” – that is, while the organization may be satisfied that no major health hazards are posed by the meat, and has figured out ways to deal with any problems that may crop up, they definitely have not signed off on any large-scale manufacture or sale of the gene-edited meat. In fact, the five little piggies who went into the sausages were the only ones who actually received the approval.
Even that was no mean feat. The Würste so recently on Oatley’s plate were the result of a project years in the making – one that cost a cool $200,000 overall.
“It’s important for a university to set the precedent by working with federal regulators to get these animals introduced into the food supply,” he said. “If we don’t go through that process, all of the research we’re doing is for naught because it will never make it out into the public.”
Indeed, while gene-edited meat has been on the menu – so to speak – for a while now, it’s yet to actually reach our plates: only last year, another company, Acceligen, received the first FDA clearance to market gene-edited beef, but other companies have not yet managed to sway the sometimes notoriously slow-moving agency into giving their own offerings the all-clear.
In part, that’s because of differences in gene-editing techniques. While the idea of genetically engineered food has never really been popular to the US public, the beef and pork that have now made it past the FDA’s initial hurdles are the result of a particular kind of tech known as CRISPR. That name probably rings a bell – it’s a tool that’s been used in some of the most impressive recent medical breakthroughs, as well as being implicated in some pretty wild claims about unethical human experiments and capital punishment.
At its core, though, CRISPR is just a very high-tech form of selective breeding – a way to massively speed up what humans have been doing for hundreds of years already. The pigs, for example, were originally gene-edited so as to enable them to be used as “surrogate sires” – that is, to father piglets using DNA from another male rather than their own, improving breeders’ ability to spread valuable genetics throughout livestock.
“There’s a trust that comes with university-based research,” Oatley said. “At WSU, we’re all about the science. We just want to make sure the research is valid, and the animals we produce are healthy.”