Meet ‘Schmeat': Say Hello to the Stem-Cell Hamburger

A long-awaited — if faintly unsettling — food product is unveiled

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MARCUS GAAB FOR TIME

True beef or not true beef? That is the question two volunteers sampling a burger in front of an invited audience in a London theater attempted to answer earlier today. Expensive food is often served as performance art, and this version of the global fast-food staple may be the exemplar of that form: it had taken three months and eaten up $331,400 to develop in a laboratory. “It’s close to meat,” mused the first taster, Hanni Rützler, a nutritional scientist, swallowing the too-solid flesh with some difficulty. “This is kind of an unnatural experience,” confessed the second taster, Josh Schonwald, a writer, as he chewed on history. He meant the lack of ketchup.

“Schmeat” — or “cultured beef” as the patty’s progenitor, Mark Post, a professor of physiology and biomedical technology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, calls the culinary product of stem cells harvested from a cow’s shoulder and laboratory-nurtured into strips of muscle — is hailed by its proponents as a potential solution to several juicy existential problems. The demand for cheap meat has been met at a high price to the environment, human health and animal welfare. In Britain, beef eaters have found themselves at the sharp end of experiments with industrialized farming and food production: an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the 1990s, spread by feeding cattle, natural herbivores, with the remains of other cattle infected with the disease; a foot-and-mouth epidemic a decade later, intensified by intensive farming; and this year the revelation that the “beef” in certain prepared foods was actually horsemeat. You might think the world would lose its appetite for meat, but demand is threatening to outstrip supply. We are, said Rützler, at “peak meat.” Schmeat production, once scaled up to bring prices down, could help feed the world and reduce some food-industry practices promoting climate change.

(VIDEO: Test-Tube Meat: TIME Explains)

The ambitions for schmeat are huge, but the taste evidently falls short of a standard burger. The problem is a “technical bottleneck,” Post (whose name rhymes with cost) told the audience at the Riverside Studios in West London. He looked ill at ease on the set, which had been constructed to resemble a TV cooking show. In his earlier career as a physician specializing in pulmonary and vascular conditions, Post learned to grow tissue to repair the damage that can be caused by fatty diets. Now he is trying to figure out how put tasty fat into his burgers, by culturing the right kinds of fat cells.

The quest to develop in vitro meat is riven with apparent contradictions. Can this most processed of processed foods be healthy? Is it possible to solve problems created by our greed for meat by making more meat more cheaply? Ten years ago, Oron Catts, an artist based at the University of Western Australia 
and former research fellow at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, explored some of these issues by devising an art installation in Nantes, France. He cultured schmeat frogs’ legs, then served them up. Several of his tasters spat out the meat. “My concern is that we’re going to see renewed trust in the idea that we can use technology to solve the problems created by our use of technology,” he says.

(MORE: Mystery Meat: World’s First Test-Tube Hamburger to Be Served in 2012)

Post produces his burger by macerating the cattle-muscle cells in a broth that includes fetal-calf serum, obtained by slaughtering pregnant cows, yet his work is lauded by some vegetarians. “Our goal is to promote foods that don’t use animals at all,” says Ingrid Newkirk, president of the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “But enormous swaths of the population can’t bring themselves to become vegan, so it’s logical to support in vitro meat if its goal is to reduce suffering.”

PETA has funded research into in vitro meat for 17 years, says Newkirk. The deep-pocketed mystery backer of Post’s project was unveiled in London along with the burger: Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. In a short film screened before the burger tasting, Brin acknowledged that some critics dismiss the prospects for mass-produced schmeat as “science fiction.” He added, “I actually think that’s a good thing. If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”

(MORE: Eat This Now: Japanese Eggplant)

A 1973 science-fiction movie starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson imagined a future world of food shortages in which the hungry proletariat has come to depend on a processed miracle foodstuff, Soylent Green, also the title of the film. But Soylent Green supplies are also dwindling. The cultured-beef tasting recalled a food-riot sequence in that movie as restive audience members, noticing that the volunteers had left more than half of the burger behind and desperate to try this scarcest of delicacies, pleaded for scraps. Post denied the requests, declaring he was saving the leftovers for his kids.

But that’s probably as far as anyone wants to go down the Soylent Green road. When Heston’s character penetrates the factory in which the food is made, he discovers (spoiler alert!) that the miracle is a nightmare, manufactured from the corpses of euthanized old folk. Cultured beef is actually a little stranger (if a lot less scary) than Soylent Green — living tissue that has never been born. If this really is the food of the future — and the most optimistic estimates suggest schmeat won’t make it into the supermarkets for another 10 or 20 years — it will have to overcome what Kenneth A. Cook, president of the U.S. environmental-health research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, calls “the ick factor.” Says Cook, who flew to London for the event: “If consumers don’t accept it, it won’t work. It will end up having been a science experiment.” All the same, he adds, the technology is “worth a look.”

And that is what cultured beef’s bizarre theatrical debut was all about: drawing attention — and funding. It looked like madness, but there was method in it.

— With reporting by Katie Harris

MORE: That’s Not Going to Fly: Man Hides Turtle in Hamburger at Security Checkpoint 

10 comments
aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

This isn't even vegan. It involves killing a pregnant cow for fetal serum to nourish the stem cell burger.

And you see, this is why I don't say "I like animals, but I hate animal rights activists." This is why I say "I like animals, THEREFORE I hate animal rights activists."

LouAZ
LouAZ

If the first thing to do in the "recipe" says "beat the p*-s out of it", DON'T EAT IT. Singularily the worst "cooking" in the world is British. They can absolute kill a fried egg. How could they possibly know what a good burger taste like ? Unless Paula Dean eats it . . . no thanks !

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Catherine. Does Spam already come from a laboratory? Scientists will need serious marketing to make this fake cow fly. Soylent Beef is NOT a good idea, alas. Maybe some better names can include:

RoboCow, RoboBurger

TerminatorBurger

Hal the Cow 9000

Sciencecowology

Blade Steak Runner

RobertParent
RobertParent

Monty Python said it best.... "but, I dont like Spam!"

ClimpJones
ClimpJones

No big deal. Jail and prison inmates in the US have been dining on this Menu Mystery for decades. 

VasuMurti
VasuMurti

Test tube meat? It's animal protein, but it doesn't involve violence against animals. It doesn't involve taking the life of a fellow creature. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is offering millions to anyone who can perfect lab grown meat.

To me, this is science fiction. When I was in grade school in the early '70s, I remember reading a science fiction book called The Lost Race of Mars. It was set in the year 2017, depicting a future in which humans have colonies on the Moon and Mars. The colonists enjoy meat grown in labs and test tubes, as it's impossible to transport livestock through space, go through the waste of resources and energy to raise animals for food (and deal with the animals' waste!) in colonies on other worlds, etc.

Pound for pound, many vegetarian foods are better sources of protein than meat. A 100-gram portion of lentils yields twenty-five grams of protein, while a hundred grams of soybeans yields thirty-four grams of protein. But although meat provides less protein, it costs more. A spot check of supermarkets in Florida in August 2005 showed sirloin steak costing $7.87 a pound, while staple ingredients for delicious vegetarian meals averaged less than $1.50 a pound.

Becoming a vegetarian could potentially save an individual shopper at least several hundred dollars each year, thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. The savings to consumers as a whole would amount to billions of dollars annually. Considering all this, it's hard to see how anyone could afford *not* to become a vegetarian.

No need for test-tube meat: the imitation meat and dairy products are just as delicious! When I was vegan in the '90s, my mom asked me if I missed ice cream. Not really. The soy ice creams are just as delicious!

For those of us who are veg for *ethical* reasons, the nutritional debates over soy, etc. aren't even an issue. The health advantages of going veg are just a pleasant side effect of a nonviolent philosophy. And meat and dairy analogs provide us with familiar tastes---without the cruelty.

Would it hurt to refrain from taking the lives of our fellow creatures? 

****

San Francisco Weekly: " 'Enjoy' Vegetarian Restaurant excels in mock meats"

Excerpt from http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-03-03/restaurants/enjoy-vegetarian-soy-on-soy-action/

"Alice Poon's original 'Enjoy' Vegetarian Restaurant on Kirkham at 12th Avenue, with its bright tangerine walls and worshippable statue of the Buddha, has been a destination for vegans since it opened four years ago. For her second restaurant, she picked a strategic (if not symbolic) location on the border between the Financial District and Chinatown, aiming for a more polished, if colder, look: buttercream walls, jade-colored tilework accents, slate floors, rosewood-stained chairs.

"The new 'Enjoy' seems to draw Chinese Buddhist and Western vegetarian diners in equal numbers. The waiters fluidly switch between Cantonese and English, and the 100-item menu appeals to multiple subtribes of the veg nation: lemon chicken and pepper steak for the tentative, fatty pork with cabbage and lotus root with lily bulb and gingko nuts for everyone else...

"'Enjoy' takes two simple proteins — tofu and wheat gluten — and smokes, presses, deep-fries, braises, seaweed-wraps, and forms them into shapes both familiar and strange. 

"(Alice Poon says that her cooks prepare some of the proteins themselves and import others from Taiwan.) 

"An appetizer combo plate ($5.99) showed off the range — ribbons of dense pressed tofu scented with five-spice powder; sweet and sour gluten puffs, braised down into sauce-saturated sponges; thin slices of soy 'pork' basted in barbecue sauce; and vegetarian goose, a dozen sheets of tofu skin rolled around one another and cross-sliced so that they seemed to flake away in the mouth.

The fake meats could approach outright mockery. An appetizer of fragrant crispy' chicken' ($5.99) resembled every factory-formed nugget you've ever heated up for your six-year-old's dinner. On first bite, I would have sworn the thin strips of soy 'beef' stir-fried with green beans ($8.50) were flank steak until I zeroed in on their flavor and noticed they lacked that gamey, farm-funk undertone. 

The award for sheer ballsiness went to the sliced fatty 'pork' ($8.50), or mock 'pork' belly: The lean half was made up of pressed tofu, the translucent fat half yam-starch jelly. The strips were scented with five-spice powder and braised with cabbage and finely chopped mustard greens — not as good as the Hakka classic, to be sure, but good in its own right.

'Enjoy's' 'spareribs' ($8.50), braised with daikon and carrot, were a remarkable facsimile of beef. The chunks of dark-brown wheat gluten broke down into long, chewy strands seemingly held together with filaments of fat and gristle. But it wasn't the illusion of meat that most intrigued me about the dish — it was the sauce, which hinted at black mushroom, a little cinnamon, a pinch of sugar. It had richness and more depth than I expected.

The dishes that best compensated for the lack of "strong-smelling foods" were the ones that substituted other strong-smelling ingredients. Iceberg lettuce cups filled with a confetti of finely chopped tofu, carrots, cloud ear, corn, and pine nuts ($13.95) tasted dry until we smeared on a spoonful of penetratingly aromatic, molasses-black hoisin sauce. 

The fermented bean paste and chiles in the satay sauce coating a dish of eggplant and tofu ($8.50) collided with the perfume of the fresh basil leaves tossed in, casting sparks. And it was hard to imagine how the strongest, spiciest dish of them all, smoked gluten stir-fried with pungent preserved mustard greens and salty fermented black beans, wouldn't excite the senses.

In fact, the black bean sauce was potent enough that I cut it with swigs from Alice Poon's one concession to her non-Buddhist customers: a bottle of Tsingtao beer! 

'Enjoy' Vegetarian Restaurant

754 Kirkham St. @ 12th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94122, (415) 682-0826 

839 Kearny St. @ Washington St., San Francisco, CA 94108 (415) 956-7868

5344 Geary St. @ 18th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121 (415) 668-5344 

(www.enjoyveggie.com)

lamiaclave
lamiaclave like.author.displayName 1 Like

Its funny cause just few weeks ago they were saying that the third of the world food gets wasted http://bit.ly/13B5eoR and now they tell us we need to eat food made in a Lab... yeah right, why dont better change the consumption habits?

StefanLeenaars
StefanLeenaars like.author.displayName 1 Like

@lamiaclave Yes at the moment we have a enough food. But spreading this around is still not a viable solution to world hunger. Think about it for a second. cause where is all that food? it's in the first world countries that have industrialized their food supply. So when you want to move all this food to the places that lack it, You either have to ship it or for a lot of foods fly it over due to shelf live. Let's ignore the environmental impact of all this transport, which is immense. So then it is in these poor countries, and then these people have to pay for it (and these are first world prices with probably a bit added onto that for the transport, and local corruption.) even though they don't have money to buy food locally. I'd love it if we can give the food away. but unfortunately that is not how this world works. Who's going to pay the farmers? the transport companies., the fuel. the corrupt officials...You? I don't think so! Which is why we have to look at how we get people access to cheap and good food locally. Cause having enough food is not the same as having access to food. Besides why do we still have enough food? Because we're mowing down the rainforest for new farmland. In the next fifty years we'll need to start producing 70% more food we are producing today. So which means we need to start looking at ways that we can produce food better and more efficient. Or we have to mow down every last bit of the rainforest.  Luckily birth rates are going down. (we're already a peak child meaning there will never be more children alive then there are now) So human population will probably reach 10 billion and then will slowly start going down. But we will need to feed those people. And if you don't want to start paying a lot more for your food in the near future, we need to start doing things better. This technology has the potential of helping with that..