History was made in London earlier today when the world’s first – and at over $492,000 (£250,000) also the world’s most expensive – cultured beef burger was fried up and served in front of 200 journalists and academics in London.
The 140 g (five ounce) Cultured Beef burger created by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University is only intended as proof of concept and it will be some time yet – maybe two decades – before it will be produced commercially and appearing on supermarket shelves near you.
In a process that took three months to complete, the Cultured Beef was created by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from a living cow. Scientists then fed and nurtured the cells in the laboratory so they multiplied to create muscle tissue – the main component of the meat we eat. The tissue is biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow. The cells then grew into small strands of meat, 20,000 of which were then combined to create one normal sized hamburger.
Proponents of the concept cite reasons of food security, reduced emissions, reduced environmental impact and better livestock conditions, as the world needs to feed more mouths by 2050, for turning to lab-produced meat. Research by Oxford University suggests that producing Cultured Beef could use as much as 99 percent less space than what is needed for current livestock farming methods.
Professor John Hunt, head of the clinical engineering unit at the University of Liverpool says, “The realisation of the concept we can grow meat in the laboratory (tissue engineering of food), in culture whilst not commercially competitive for everyday supermarket shelves in the fiercely commercial food industry, raises the right questions and challenges our values as humans. Is this what we want to develop further in the future as an alternative source of meat to farming animals?
“From an industrial perspective scaling up will be the issue; from a consumer perspective, does it take like or the same but different and like a real food item worth eating.”
The proof got the “ethical thumbs up” from Professor Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, who says the development of artificial meat is “a triumph” for both science and ethics. He identifies the ethical downside of creating artificial meat as “Many animals would not come into existence who (sic) would have lived and many farmers might lose their livelihoods. The solution maybe to combine artificial meat production with controls on farming to ensure animals that are brought into existence for farming purposes only have happy, worthwhile lives and are slaughtered in humane ways.”
He hopes the creation of the meat will prompt a thoughtful debate on the ethics of food production and eating.
While the science looks achievable, says Professor Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at University College London, the scalable manufacturing will “require new game-changing innovation”, he says pointing also to potential synergies between lab-meat generation and regenerative medicine. However, a decent size joint of beef is approaching a trillion cells and that’s just one family meal, he says. “The current cost of manufacturing cell therapies is thousands/tens of thousands of pounds per treatment, that is an order of magnitude greater than the price of even the best quality steak.”
He put the manufacturing challenge into perspective: “Over the past 25 years, the total number of human cells grown in culture as regenerative medicine is far less than the number of cells in the beef produced from just one single cow.”
Costs would reduce over time, however, as the scale of production increases. Scientists in the field hope that the cultured burger event will raise the profile of in-vitro meat and attract further support and additional sources of funding. The UK Food Standards Agency issued a statement to say that any novel food, or food produced using a novel production process, must undergo a stringent and independent safety assessment before it is placed on the market.
“Anyone seeking approval of an in-vitro meat product would have to provide a dossier of evidence to show that the product is safe, nutritionally equivalent to existing meat products and will not mislead the consumer. This would be evaluated under the EU regulation for novel foods, prior to a decision on authorisation. There have been no such applications to date.”
For those interested to know: the Cultured Beef burger was made with a little egg powder and breadcrumbs and a few other common burger ingredients. It was tasted by Mark Post, food writer Josh Schonwald and nutritional researcher Hanni Rützler, who both reportedly remarked on ‘familiar mouthfeel’ (but didn’t say whether it was good or not). The burger was cooked by Chef Richard McGeown, of Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Cornwall. While beef was chosen for the purposes of this event, the same techniques can be used to make any meat.
Professor Post first got involved in a Dutch government-funded programme investigating ‘in-vitro meat’ in 2008 when he was a professor of tissue engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. When the programme director Wilem van Eelen fell ill half-way through the programme, Post took over the supervision of the PhD students. Motivated by the high societal impact he continued research even after the funding finished in 2010. Renewed funding from a private partner, reportedly Sergey Brin a Google co-founder, enabled the realisation of a project to create a processed meat product using the muscle cells of a cow.
Watch the video below to find out more about the project or take a look here.