In vitro meat

Today’s big news was a burger. But not just your regular Big Mac, or even a fancy new American sandwich that foodies queue hours to taste. Actually, you can’t even taste this burger, since there was only one. And even if you could have one you couldn't afford it, it cost £250,000. And that’s not including fries or a coke.

This burger, grown from stem cells in a laboratory, was unveiled this afternoon in London. Professor Mark Post, and his team from University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, served up the 5oz burger to nutritional researcher Hanni Ruetzler and food writer Josh Schonwal in a live press conference. The burger patty was made of stem cells taken from a cow. In the meat production process, stem cells are cultivated in a nutrient broth allowing them to proliferate 30-fold. They are then combined with collagen and attached to "anchor points" in a culture dish. The cells then self-organise into muscle tissue. The muscle strips are then “trained” with electrical stimulation. Once ready, 20 000 muscle strips are minced and mixed with 200 pieces of lab-grown animal fat and moulded into a patty. The resulting meat is white in colour, so the researchers used beetroot extract to give the showcase patty a more meat-like appearance.

Aside from all the hoopla at launch this “in vitro meat” may prove to be really important. Commercial livestock farming is environmentally devastating: agriculture, and especially methane-producing cattle, account for a major part of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Livestock farming, again cattle in particular, also uses a lot of land that could be used to grow produce for human consumption. Around 30% of all usable land on Earth is used as a pasture for animals, compared with 4% used for growing plants for humans. In comparison, the stem cell patty offers a significantly more sustainable option. An independent study on “in-vitro meat” found that lab-grown beef uses 45% less energy than the average global representative figure for farming cattle. It also produces 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 99% less land.

Another reason not to overlook the lab meat is what it can do to advance animal welfare. Indeed, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, who is the main backer of the project, says he is doing it for “animal welfare reasons.” It should be clear to everyone that factory farming is cruel and unhygienic. The stem cell burger requires no mass-torture and slaughter of animals. But, with the ever rising demand for meat products, over-crowded, inhumane raising and slaughtering facilities will not go out of business for mere ethical concerns. But maybe a combination of cost ethics, cost saving and the positive environmental consequences could mean lab meat makes a real impact. Whether or not it can be considered a vegetarian (or even vegan) meal option is another question, but even PETA has welcomed the new product: "One day you will be able to eat meat with ethical impunity," a spokesman said. Prof. Post has said that lab grown meat won't be commercially available for at least 10 years so it will be some time before we know the real impact.

But ethics and economics aside what does the lab patty really need to succeed? It’s got to taste right. Helen Breewood, who is part of the research team said: "If it doesn't look like normal meat, if it doesn't taste like normal meat, it's not going to be a viable replacement." The verdict of the lucky tasters suggests that researchers need to spend the next decade experimenting with the seasoning. Ms Ruetzler’s comment on the £250,000 patty was: "The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper." Mr Schonwald said: "The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger. What was consistently different was flavour."

So if you're lucky enough to get the chance to fork out a quarter of a million for an ersatz burger our advice is don't stint on the ketchup