Yesterday, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was cooked, served, and eaten. And according to an article from The Week, it passed the taste test. The taste test took place in London, where Mark Post, the man who had grown the patty in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, allowed two independent tasters to sample one of his hamburger patties.
The samplers were food writer and journalist Josh Schonwald and Austrian food trends researcher Hanni Rützler. After biting into a piece of the cooked meat in front of reporters, Schonwald claimed that “It had a familiar mouthfeel. [The difference] is the absence of fat.” Naturally, both tasters were careful not to comment on whether the burger was “good” or not, as any such judgements might seem premature and could hurt its chances for sales at this point.
This lab-grown patty took two years and $325,000 to produce. And as sources revealed, the money came from Google co-founder and TED speaker Sergey Brin. Worth an estimated $20 billion, Brin has a history of investing in cooky projects – everything from driverless cars to trips to the moon. And as he told The Guardian, he was moved to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons and believes it has “the capability to transform how we view the world”.
The hamburger was grown in Post’s lab using bovine skeletal muscle stem cells that were collected from a piece of fresh beef. The cells were grown by “feeding” them calf serum and commercially available growth medium to initiate multiplication and prompt them to develop into muscle cells over time. Once they differentiated into muscle cells, they were given simple nutrient sources and exercised in a bioreactor, helping the muscle to “bulk up.”
The resulting five-ounce burger, cooked by chef Richard McGeown for Schonwald and Rützler, was made using 20,000 strips of cultured meat – about 40 billion cow cells – and took about three months to produce. As Post joked, this is significantly less time than it takes to raise a cow. And while the arrival of in-vitro meat has been predicted and heralded for decades, but now that it’s finally here, people are not sure how to respond.
On the one hand, it offers a range of possibilities for producing sustainable, cheap meat that could help meet global needs using only a laboratory. On the other, there’s no telling how long it will be before consumers will be comfortable eating something grown in a petri dish from stem cells. Between the absence of fat and the stigma that is sure to remain in place for some time, getting people to buy “lab-grown” might be difficult.
But then again, the same issues apply to 3D printed food and other forms of synthesized food. Designed and developed as a means of meeting world hunger and future population growth, and with sustainability and nutritional balance in mind, some degree of hesitation and resistance is to be expected. However, attitudes are likely to shift as time goes on and increased demand forces people to rethink the concept of “what’s for dinner”.
And while you’re thinking the issue over, be sure to check out this video of Mark Post speaking about his lab-grown burger at TEDx Haarlem: