The human appetite for “meat with feet” has never been great news for animals. But more and more, it’s also being viewed as a detriment to human health and the environment, leading some activists to wonder if a better way to produce meat might be found. One intriguing possibility may be found in the laboratory.
Last month, the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced it was offering $1 million to the first person to make lab-grown chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The taste and texture, PETA said, must be “indistinguishable” from real chicken flesh, and the lab-cultured meat must be “sold commercially ... at a competitive price in at least 10 states.”
While PETA appears be in little danger of losing its money, so-called “in vitro” meat may yet be coming to a hamburger or chicken nugget near you, says Jason Matheny, cofounder and director of New Harvest, a nonprofit group forming a network of researchers and spreading information about cultured or in vitro meat.
At meeting in Norway last month sponsored by the In Vitro Meat Consortium, a group of universities and others studying the idea, “the consensus was encouraging that this is a technology that probably could be developed in the five-to-10-year time frame,” says Mr. Matheny, who is also a PhD candidate in public health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Those at the meeting also heard about a promising paper on the economics of creating meat in a lab rather than growing it in a barnyard. The study, which assumes that the process would involve a mix of current and conceivable future technologies, shows that a cultured meat product could be price competitive with conventional meat, Matheny says.
Europe is the hotbed for this kind of research, with government-funded Dutch researchers taking the lead. In that densely populated country, “If you’re a half a kilometer from a pig farm, you’re going to notice,” Matheny says.
But researchers don’t envision creating faux chicken wings or a T-bone steak. “The technology to produce something like that doesn’t exist, nor is it clear when something like that would exist,” Matheny says.
Instead, they are trying to create a lab-grown version of ground meat, the kind found in hamburgers, sausages, and chicken nuggets. Such products account for about half of all meat consumed today, Matheny says.
Roughly 56 million farm animals worldwide are slaughtered for human consumption each year, says a 2006 report from the United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Raising livestock, it said, accounts for 18 percent of the human-caused greenhouse gases that cause global warming. That’s a greater share than all forms of transportation combined.
Demand for meat is expected to boom in coming decades, with the number of livestock doubling by 2050, the UN report concludes, as workers in rising economies such as China and India acquire the taste for animal flesh.
Already in the United States, “the present system of producing food animals ... is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food,” said a report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production late last month.
Such warnings have scientists working on a meatmaking process that starts with just a single cell taken painlessly from an animal. The likely candidate, a muscle stem cell, would be placed in a mix of amino acids, sugar, salt, water, and proteins that act as growth factors.
Over time, the cells would divide and produce millions of daughter cells, which then are placed on a scaffold. After the cells attach themselves to thin grooves in the scaffold, they are bathed again in the growth mix while being periodically stretched and contracted. This movement creates tension so that the cells form fibers, as happens when muscles are exercised.
After several weeks, a thin sheet of real muscle tissue develops that can be pulled off the scaffold and processed: stacked, rolled, or ground up. Fat cells for flavor and connective tissue for added texture could be grown along with the muscle or grown separately and added later.
The nutritional value could be precisely controlled as well. “With cultured meat, you could have a hamburger with the fat profile of salmon,” Matheny says, adding that a healthy form of fat could be used instead of the less healthy version that naturally occurs in meat.
Bioengineered meat might seem incompatible with vegetarian, vegan (no dairy products or eggs), or organic, low-tech lifestyles.
But cultured meat would be aimed primarily at those not ready to give up the sensory pleasures of meat’s flavor and texture. “We don’t expect the whole world to go vegan overnight, and in vitro meat can provide a way to eat ethically while still providing a meat-fix that people are looking for,” says Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for PETA.
“We’ve been trying to get people to become vegetarians for centuries, and it hasn’t worked very well,” says Elizabeth DeCoux, a vegan and an assistant law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville who teaches and writes about animal rights. “I think people who love animals and haven’t been able to give up meat-eating are probably going to be a big, big market [for cultured meat].”
More exotic uses might be found for the technology, too, Matheny says, including what he calls the “Jurassic Park scenario.” Meat could be produced from the DNA of extinct animals or endangered species, sparing dwindling stocks that are now hunted for meat.
But “the real market for something like this is the people who like the taste of meat and are buying their KFC or McDonald’s chicken nuggets and want a product that is safer and healthier,” he says.
Whether consumers would reject cultured meat as unappetizing “Frankenfood” remains to be seen, but Matheny says the challenge can be met.
“Bread is a bioengineered product. It doesn’t grow on trees, and we accept it,” he argues. Yogurt is cultured in factories that look like pharmaceutical plants. Ultimately, he says, “consumers accept products that have really pronounced benefits.”