European lab promises world’s first in vitro hamburger

Get ready for the first taste from the “Petri dish platter.” A group of researchers in the Netherlands has announced that the first lab-grown hamburger will be on the grill in October 2012 — at a cost of roughly $300,000.

That may not sound hard for beef producers to compete with, but researcher Dr. Mark Post says that as with any other product, cost will decline with volume. He thinks the process can be scaled up to make a commercially viable meat product within five years.

The presentation was made at North America’s biggest annual science event, the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting held here last month. Among the sessions available to one of the 5,000-odd attendees was one titled “The Next Agricultural Revolution: Emerging Production Methods for Meat Alternatives.”

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“There are alternatives to livestock agriculture provided by the medical field,” says Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “We have all the technologies needed to take stem cells from animals and grow them in the lab into muscle tissues.”

Animal muscle tissue grown in the lab is commonly referred to as “cultured” or “in vitro” meat. The development of technology for producing cultured meat for human consumption has been under development since the early 1950s.

“We are looking for efficiency of production and mimicry,” says Post. “It needs to replace meat as we know it.”

Muscle stem cells

The process starts with stem cells harvested from the muscle of a living animal. The cells are fed a serum of sugars, protein, amino acids and fatty acids, and grown out in Petri dishes with anchor points that provide structure for the “muscle” and allows it to be stretched and flexed.

To “exercise” the tissue, the cells are zapped with electrical currents to create higher protein production and achieve the typical striated muscle pattern that consumers are used to seeing in their meat.

Any steak aficionado will tell you that the flavour is in the fat — something the medical field is usually more concerned about reducing rather than adding. The lab is also cultivating strips of fat that will eventually be blended with the muscle to make a minced meat product.

Sound appetizing? One of the biggest concerns for the future of cultured meat is consumer acceptance. There are many who feel that people simply won’t have an appetite for Petri dish protein. Post is not one of them.

“If the price is right and we can get a guaranteed quality, then I think the choice will be easily made,” he says.

Part of the price will be measured in environmental impact. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted that meat production will need to increase by up to 200 million tonnes per year by 2050 in order to feed the growing demand.

Currently, livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet. The doubling of production will have serious implications for the competition of land, water and other inputs.

“The basic issue is that cows and pigs are very inefficient,” says Post. “In vitro meat can be produced with a huge reduction in land, and considerable reduction in water and energy use.”

More efficient

A paper published in Environmental Science and Technology, performed a life cycle analysis for cultured meat. In comparison to conventionally produced European beef, cultured meat required 45 per cent less energy, 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99 per cent lower land use, and 96 per cent lower water use.

The energy advantage drops considerably when cultured meat is compared to other protein sources, particularly poultry, but it still only uses a fraction of the land area and water needed to rear livestock.

Post says the laboratory offers other opportunities, including the ability to develop new and healthier product traits, and producing meat from exotic animals or multiple sources.

The hamburger will hopefully be the “proof of concept” that Post needs to secure funding to take production to the next level.

“We are still growing very small pieces, too small to actually cook right now,” says Post. “We are now gearing up to produce a golf-ball size of this stuff and cook it.”

There are still considerable challenges to overcome, largely financial, before Post and his team will realize their goal of a commercial production facility. The project is currently bankrolled by an anonymous private funder, but eventually they are going to need a larger infusion of capital.

“Eventually this needs to come from governments and businesses. It’s really a long-term investment,” says Post. “We need quite a bit of resources to work through the variables to make it more efficient and scale it up.”

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