Test Tube Meat?


The first in-vitro meat symposium was held last week in Norway. Yes, in-vitro meat, as in meat grown in a lab, from cell culture.

That sounds pretty gross, but it’s actually no more disgusting (and infinitely more humane) than many factory-farming practices.

Jason G. Matheny, of New Harvest, just got back from the symposium, and he agreed to answer all our burning questions about test tube meat.

“It should taste the same as regular ground meat…” after the jump.

How does growing meat in-vitro work?

Cultured meat is meat produced in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal. The production of cultured meat begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating them in a nutrient-rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year. After the cells are multiplied, they are attached to a sponge-like “scaffold” and soaked with nutrients. They may also be mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content. The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.

How did the symposium go? Did you learn about anything new?

The meeting was very encouraging. The general consensus is that a ground meat product like sausage or hamburger is both technically and economically feasible in the near-term.

What were the big issues at the symposium this year?

One of the big challenges has been development of animal-free culture media and growth factors. There’s been excellent research in this area recently, and it looks like this challenge can be solved in the near-term. Another issue at the symposium was economics. The consortium funded an independent economic assessment, which found that by adapting existing technologies, it should be possible to make a cultured meat product that’s competitive with conventional meat.

I notice that many of your colleagues at the in-vitro meat association are European. Is Europe ahead of the US on this?

Yes, definitely. The Dutch government has shown unique foresight by funding research on cultured meat. It would be good for the US government to catch up. After all, in this country we’ve got more heart attacks, more water pollution, and more greenhouse gas emissions due to meat.

When will the technology be ready to produce in-vitro meat on a large scale?

Our guess is 5 to 10 years. This could likely be shortened by more energetic investment in research and development.

Why should we support in-vitro meat production?

Cultured meat could help solve a lot of global problems. Fatty meats are thought to cause two million deaths each year. With cultured meat, you could have a hamburger that has the fat profile of an avocado. Meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. With cultured meat, you could reduce emissions to a fraction of what they are now. And with cultured meat, you wouldn’t have problems like avian flu, Mad Cow, or the salmonella or campylobacter that contaminate our meat. Lastly, with cultured meat you wouldn’t need to raise and kill 50 billion farm animals each year.

The most common objection I’ve heard to cultured meat is that it’s unnatural. This is true, but it’s also unnatural to raise tens of thousands of animals under a tin roof, doping them with antibiotics and growth promoters. That’s what we do now. We can do much better. We already accept bioengineered products like yogurt, so I’m optimistic that consumers will accept cultured meat, particularly given its health benefits.

How does it taste?

It should taste the same as regular ground meat, as it’s made of essentially the same material.

In theory, would you be able to grow anything from a porterhouse steak to a pork shoulder?

Growing whole pieces of meat, like steaks or drumsticks, is a much more difficult challenge. My guess is that’s decades off. But half the meat we eat is ground meat, so we should start there.

Will you run into trouble with the American Cattlemen Association or other lobbying groups?

I haven’t seen any statements from the livestock industry groups about this. Meat processors like Tyson should be in favor of any technology that helps their bottom line. In principle cultured meat could eventually be cheaper than traditional meat, since you can avoid losses due to animal disease, and integrate meat production from start to finish under one roof. But it’s true that cultured meat would compete with large livestock producers.

How did you get interested in in-vitro meat?

I was working in India on a public health project and was surprised to see a trend toward the factory farming practices and meat consumption common in the U.S. It was clear that the problems we have with American meat production and consumption–pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, heart disease, food contamination, and poor animal welfare–are becoming global. Around the same time I had read about NASA research on cultured meat– meat produced in a cell culture rather than in an animal–to feed astronauts. It seemed like the technology would have more important applications feeding people on Earth.