Lab-Grown Meat: It's What's For Dinner

In this week's New Yorker, Michael Specter takes a great look at the world of in-vitro meat—grown in a lab, outside an animal body. It's not a matter of if, but when. Will you eat it?

One of the pioneering figures in this field, Willem van Eelen, dreamed up many of the techniques used today, which rely on cell cultures to foster growth. Many are excited about the prospect of lab-grown meat for various reasons: It could be more efficient than raising and slaughtering animals. It could be healthier than the sickly animals used whose bodies are chock full of pathogens and anti-biotics. It could finally make PETA STFU.

But how is it done? Here's how one lab in Eindhoven accomplishes the task:

The initial cells are typically taken from a mouse. (The Dutch have also focused on pork stem cells, because pigs are readily available to them, often reclaimed from eggs discarded at slaughterhouses or taken from biopsies.) Researchers then submerge those cells in amino acids, sugars, and minerals. Generally, that mixture consists of fetal serum taken from calves...After the cells age, van der Schaft and her colleagues place them on biodegradable scaffolds, which help them grow together into muscle tissue. That tissue can then be fused and formed into meat that can be processed as if it were ground beef or pork.

This lab meat is just like regular meat in that it can go soft and atrophy without activity. But instead of exercise, lab meat will receive electroshock therapy to stay fit. When asked about lab grown meat, one professor quoted in the article described it as "steak-flavored Jell-O." Ew. And he wasn't the only one down on the flavor.

Nearly every person I told that I was working on this piece asked the same question: What does it taste like? (And the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was "Yuck.") Researchers say that taste and texture—fats and salt and varying amounts of protein—can be engineered into lab-grown meat with relative ease. For the moment, taste remains a secondary issue, because, so far, the largest piece of "meat" that has been produced in Eindhoven measured eight millimeters long, two millimeters wide, and four hundred microns thick. It contained millions of cells but was the size of a contact lens." The specimen I saw was as visually stimulating as mouse droppings, and, if such a substance can be said to look like anything, it looked like a runny egg. How, I wondered, could those blobs ever feed anyone?

And what about the day that it finally appears in consumable form? What will it look like? Maybe it'll take the form of Filet Mignon. Maybe not.

To grow ground meat—which accounts for half the meat sold in the United States—one needs essentially to roll sheets of two-dimensional muscle cells together and mold them into food. A steak would be much harder. That's because before scientists can manufacture meat that looks as if it came from a butcher, they will have to design the network of blood vessels and arteries required to ferry nutrients to the cells.

But this is just the tech-y tip of this feature's iceberg. Read the full article, which lays out all the social, nutritional and economical hurdles lab-grown meat will face on its path to commercial viability. [New Yorker]

[Photo Credit: Hans Gissinger]