The Bogus $1 Million Meat Prize

Why PETA’s artificial chicken contest is nothing but a publicity stunt.

Read William Saletan’s “ Human Nature” column on the fake meat prize.

Fake chicken could now be worth $1 million. In the last few days, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced that it will present a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate a major breakthrough in the technology of lab-grown meat: Contestants have until 2012 to produce a commercially viable, in vitro chicken substitute that tastes just like the real thing.

The X-Poultry Prize has already generated high expectations. In its press release, PETA suggests that in vitro farms will spare the “more than 40 billion chickens, fish, pigs, and cows” that are killed every year in the United States. My colleague William Saletan promised Slate readers that “animals were only the first incarnation of meat. Get ready for the second.” I’m not so bullish. We might be eating test-tube McNuggets at some point in the next 10 or 20 years, but it’s hard to see how PETA’s $1 million will help to get us there.

To understand why, let’s back up and think about what a science prize is supposed to do. In theory, a cash incentive encourages private companies to pursue research that doesn’t have a clear financial reward. For example, a pharmaceutical company might not have much reason to invest in treating a disease of the developing world, like malaria. A patent on a malaria vaccine would be a great boon for global health, but it wouldn’t be worth that much money since the people who need it most can’t afford to pay.

Science prizes can also encourage intermediate breakthroughs that don’t have an immediate commercial application. The Orteig Prize offered $25,000 to anyone who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. The commercial aviation industry would eventually be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but when Charles Lindbergh made the trip in 1927, the prize itself was the payoff.

So what’s wrong with the PETA prize? You need to sell your product in order to win. According to the contest guidelines (PDF), the million-dollar meat must be available in stores to qualify for the cash. Fake-chicken entrepreneurs have to demonstrate a “commercial sales minimum” at a “comparable market price”; in plain English, they need to move 2,000 pounds of the stuff at supermarkets and chain restaurants spread out across 10 states during a period of three months. And the Franken-meat can’t cost more than regular chicken.

That means PETA won’t be content with any intermediate (and not immediately profitable) breakthrough, like the development of lab-grown chicken that tastes as good as the natural stuff. Instead, the organization will hold the purse until a “commercially viable” product hits the market. In other words, you can’t win the $1 million unless you’re already in position to make a profit. At that point, a science prize doesn’t provide much incentive for innovation. It’s more like a small bonus.

To make matters worse, PETA’s commercial requirements saddle researchers with demands that have nothing to do with science. Any company that wants to sell artificial chicken for public consumption will probably face a lengthy government-review process. Consider that it took five years for the Food and Drug Administration to approve the sale of cloned meat. Let’s say you invented a perfect chicken substitute tomorrow—something so delicious and inexpensive that it could go into production right away. Even then, you still might not make the PETA deadline for supermarket sales.

By comparison, the contests sponsored by the X Prize Foundation have no such requirements. To win the Google Lunar X Prize, a team of engineers must put a robot on the moon. They don’t need to put it on sale in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. The Progressive Automotive X Prize, announced last month, will go to the developers of a car that gets more than 100 miles per gallon. They must also demonstrate that their car is “production capable”—i.e., that it won’t cost much more than $75,000 to make one—and they need to “articulate clear and viable business cases for bringing their vehicles to market.” But they don’t have to start selling them at the local dealership.

The PETA prize may turn out to be a minor boon for lab-meat research, insofar as it generates publicity for the project. (When everyone starts talking about artificial chicken, private investors will take notice.) But it’s hard to imagine that the $1 million will itself provide much incentive. As a science prize, it just feels a little fake.