SCIENTISTS have unveiled the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, serving it up to volunteers in London in what they hope is the start of a food revolution.
The 140 gram patty, which cost more than 250,000 euros ($373,000) to produce, has been made using strands of meat grown from muscle cells taken from a living cow.
Mixed with salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs to improve the taste, and coloured with red beetroot juice and saffron, researchers claim it will taste similar to a normal burger.
Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, whose lab developed the meat, says the burger is safe and has the potential to replace normal meat in the diets of millions of people.
He brought it into a news conference at a TV studio on a tray covered in a metal cloche.
The patty was served to two volunteers, US-based food author Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler.
After taking a mouthful, she said: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft… I know there is no fat in it so I didn’t know how juicy it would be.
“It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect (but) I miss salt and pepper!”
Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, was revealed as one of the financial backers of the project.
He said in a video message: “Sometimes when technology comes along, it has the capability to transform how we view our world. I like to look at technology opportunities. When technology seems like it is on the cusp of viability and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative for the world.”
There are concerns that the growing demand for meat is putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, both through the food required for the animals and the methane gas they produce, which contributes to global warming.
“What we are going to attempt is important because I hope it will show cultured beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces,” Prof Post said ahead of Monday’s event.
“Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven’t altered them in any way. For it to succeed it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing.”
The team in Maastricht took cells from organic cows and placed them in a nutrient solution to create muscle tissue. They then grew this into small strands of meat, 20,000 of which were required to make the burger.
Although it is very expensive, the costs of cultured beef are likely to fall as more is produced and the team claim it could be available in supermarkets within 10 to 20 years.
Proponents of test tube meat cite a variety of reasons for why it is worth supporting, from animal welfare to the environment and even public health – lab-created meat theoretically carries no risk of disease and does not need to be treated with antibiotics.
Peta, the animal rights group, has been funding research in the United States and has offered a $US1 million (1.12 million) prize for the first lab to produce and bring to market in-vitro chicken meat.
Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist based at Cardiff University who has studied test tube meat, said the project was an attempt to spark a debate about an issue that many in the field believe is still not taken seriously enough.
“They want to demonstrate to the world that in-vitro meat is something that’s real, it’s something to be taken seriously,” he said.
“This is still very much an early stage technology,” said Dr Stephens.
“This is a fundamentally different way of making meat,” and raises questions whether it is meat at all, he said.
“What will be interesting is, in the coming weeks, watching the response to see how many people are convinced by the technology.”
Scaling it up will be a big challenge.
He said about 50 people were involved in this kind of research worldwide, mainly in the Netherlands and North America.