Meat for Meat’s Sake

Growing burgers in the lab is a waste of time.

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London August 5, 2013.
Professor Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London on Aug. 5, 2013

Photo by David Parry/Pool/Reuters

“I was expecting the texture to be more soft,” said food scientist Hanni Ruetzler upon tasting the world’s first lab-grown hamburger at Monday’s press event in London. “It’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy.” After years of research and development—and an investment of $330,000—the Netherlands-based tissue engineer Mark Post served up a patty of pure cow muscle, reared from stem cells in a dish. Ruetzler, one of the two people who were allowed to sample it, declared the synthetic burger “crunchy and hot,” and “a bit like cake.”

This was just a proof of concept—a way for Post to show that synthetic meat is even possible at all. The London burger had no fat cells whatsoever, so it couldn’t taste that much like carcass beef, but future versions will be marbled in the lab: It’s just a matter of refining the technology, and scaling up the meat vats for industrial production. Post expects to have a viable alternative for farm-raised cattle on the market in the next 10 to 20 years.

If lab meat takes off, we might scale back the damage done by the huge and growing livestock industry. Food animals account for at least one-sixth of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and demand for meat is growing. (Some expect it to double by the year 2050.) Growing beef or chicken in laboratory vats could also save trillions—trillions—of animal lives within a couple of decades. That’s why I’m sad to say that this well-intentioned project is such a waste of time. In fact, it’s one of the worst good ideas of recent memory.

What’s wrong with Frankenbeef? Some complain it’s not as feasible—or sustainable—as we’ve been led to think. For now, the stuff is made from stem cells drawn from the necks of living cows, then dosed with antibiotics and bathed in blood from cattle fetuses. A much-cited blog post by synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis points out that replacing that fetal bovine serum with blue-green algae—the step that would finally take dead cattle out of the equation—would be very difficult, and so will making cell cultures big enough to feed the herd of human carnivores.

The technical challenges do seem immense, but advances in technology often seem implausible in their early days. I’ll grant the possibility that Professor Post and his colleagues will find a way to solve these problems in the years to come. What about their project’s goals? Let’s say we found an efficient way to make disembodied meat. Would anybody eat it? That’s where Monday’s demonstration left me cold.

If you want to get the world to eat less livestock, you’ve got two choices: Either convince everyone that eating animals is wrong and that they should give up the taste of meat for good, or find another way to indulge the global appetite. According to Mark Post’s financial backer—Google co-founder Sergey Brin—the first approach could never be accomplished.* (“I don’t think that’s really likely,” he says in a video promoting his shamburger.) I’m not sure he’s right—a world of vegetarians, why not?—but it’s true this shift could take a very long time, centuries instead of decades. In the near-term, then, we’re left with only option two: We need to find a substitute for meat, and a way to match its flavor.

Post and Brin (along with many others) say that test-tube beef—a product made of cow cells—could be the stand-in that we need. Since it comes from real animal materials, it won’t suffer the fate of soy- and fungus-based alternatives. Despite decades of industrial research, the veggie “meats” you find in grocery stores—Gardenburgers, Tofurkey, etc.—are only rough approximations. They’re fake. Lab-made meat is real.

I don’t buy it. If Monday’s demonstration showed us anything at all, it’s that “real” meat won’t necessarily taste like a piece of muscle from a cow. Mark Post’s proof of concept started yellow-white, so he colored it with beet juice, caramel and saffron. If it’s to be sold at Burger King or Shake Shack, more fixes will be necessary. In his 2011 review of in vitro meat for The New Yorker, Michael Specter noted that “taste and texture—fats and salt and varying amounts of protein—can be engineered into lab-grown meat with relative ease.” The website for the London patty project—which calls it “cultured beef,” as if describing artisanal sauerkraut—explains that “accepted food technology methods will be/have been used to adapt the beef’s taste and texture so that it is virtually identical to farmed beef.”

In other words, laboratory meat only seems “real”—it only matches up with the taste you know and love—when mixed with additives to improve its color, flavor, and mouthfeel. But if that’s true, then what’s the point? Does a base of cultured cow cells really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom? Last year, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo raved about the latest veggie form of “chicken,” a product made from extruded soy paste that, in the words of its founder, gets “the proteins to align in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from animal proteins.” Sounds like dopey marketing to me, but Farhad swears Beyond Meat is “90 to 95 percent as realistic as chicken.”

The whole idea, of course, is that lab-made meat can do much better because it’s made from bovine stem cells: Instead of 95-percent authenticity, it will get to 99 percent or even higher. But there’s little reason to be hopeful. It’s true that scientists can make synthetic versions of natural products—much of the vanilla flavor in our food supply, for example, comes not from the vanilla orchid but a process of industrial fermentation. (Either way, the ingredient tastes pretty much the same.) Meat is a far more complicated substance, though—a mix of muscle, fat, tendons, ligaments, and blood—and one that doesn’t lend itself to “nature-identical” formulations. (The life history of an animal also affects its taste, and makes it harder to recreate that taste by hand.)

If it’s going to take “accepted food technology methods” to make the test-tube beef seem real, then at best we’re guaranteed to get another approximation. The London patty, even in its most-developed form, may end up no more delicious than existing (and much less expensive) products like Gardein. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of growing meat?

I suppose it’s possible that a cattle-cell-based alternative wouldn’t need to win on taste, so long as it appealed to some deeper, quasi-spiritual sense of what meat is or what meat should be. But it’s hard to see how such a product could escape being tarred by its own weird, synthetic origins. While insists that lab-grown meat will be “a natural beef product,” mainstream food producers have been sued for package claims that ought to inspire far less incredulity.

Meanwhile, food activists have shown a tendency to attack any laboratory product, no matter how scrumptious or salubrious, on the grounds that it might cause allergies or cancer. Even now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants the FDA to look into a ban on the sale of Quorn, the fungus-based meat substitute, despite little evidence of harm in more than 20 years of use. Why wouldn’t lab-grown meat be attacked with the same degree of holy venom? How could it avoid the public sliming that’s afflicted other forms of processed meat, and kept them off our plates?

In the end, it doesn’t matter if synthetic beef is made from muscle cells. Meat is more than just a set of tissue types, and something else beyond their flavor. It’s a piece and product of the culture, a thing that can’t be faked.

Correction, Aug. 7, 2013: This article orginally misspelled Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)