Monday, August 5, 2013

Lab Burgers and Stem Cell Research

It's being called a test tube burger, a lab burger, an in vitro burger. When I asked by husband if he would eat a burger grown in a petri dish, he replied, "If you didn't tell me it was grown in a petri dish, I would."

Grass Fed Beef and Potatoes
At an event held in London on this day, August 5, 2013, a hamburger grown in a petri dish, originating from the cells of cow muscle is cooked up and served. This is cultured meat, not meaning it has a certain elegant style – or perhaps it does- but rather that it's been grown much like any other culture, such as a throat swab.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, aka, PETA, are all for this. They don't want cows, pigs, chickens, etc to endure the horrid conditions now so well documented that are associated with raising animals for food. So taking a bit of tissue from a cow muscle and growing a burger means animals will provide the cells for meat, not become the meat itself.

There are other considerations as well: environmental, financial, and of course, world hunger. We all want a healthier planet, a more robust global economy, and a well-fed population.

But really, are burgers the way to go? I suppose the science behind lab-grown food had to start somewhere, and it's probably easier to grow a burger than, say, a radish when it comes to cultured food. With pundits screeching about obesity and the crappy diets that cause it, is this the sort of thing that is going to further encourage veggies and grains over meat and potatoes?

Now, to be fair, the burger is actually fat free, by any FDA standard. It's strictly muscle tissue, which doesn't contain fat. This isn't a greasy half-pounder. It is five ounces of lean meat. It's the kind of burger that Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig would certainly encourage the clientele to include in their diets.

Veggie Plate-A natural alternative to meat?
So, a leaner hamburger that also saves the planet and ends world hunger is really quite revolutionary. Let's all hear it for the lab-burger.

How does it taste? According to food writer Josh Schonwald, one of the tasters at the London event, the burger was more like "animal proteincake". The lab-burger had the texture and appearance of meat, but wasn't wildly flavorful. But any Contemporary Cook worth her herbs can turn that around – a bit of ketchup, onion, and some dried parsley mixed in to the meat and you've got a delicious hamburger.

This technology is born of stem cell research aimed at helping humans with debilitating medical conditions or damaged body parts. But that particular goal involved ethical issue, primarily because the research required stem cells from human fetuses. But it would seem that helping humans overcome pain and life-threatening diseases isn't high on the list for organizations such as PETA. But God forbid we eat a cow.

The lab-burger though, is still meat. The goal of this culinary innovation is to feed the carnivores of this planet.  Should it prove a cruelty free source of meat, will vegetarians and vegans who abstain now come to the dark side because the cruelty factor is removed?

The experts won't be churning out lab-burgers anytime soon; this one burger cost several thousand dollars to grow. But if we, as humans, stopped eating meat, this technology would perhaps be put to better use, perhaps determining ways to improve soil for home gardens, or grow grains in a more efficient way. Or perhaps, to help humans in distress.

As an omnivore, I applaud the effort, and hope for the best outcome from this expensive experiment. As a Contemporary Cook, I believe I could make this in vitro meat taste good. As the parent of a vegetarian, I don't think it will convert any meat-free people into carnivores. As a human, I wonder if we're headed in the right direction when it comes to stem cells and the research surrounding it.

No comments: