Growing beef from a petri dish: will you eat it?

Science and Technology

When you are eating a beef burger in your college hall, you probably think of it as muscle taken out from a cow. But how would you react if you found out you were eating beef which was instead cultured entirely in the laboratory?

Professor Mark Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University who is behind the research into cultured beef, talks about the damage done to the environment by rearing livestock and the food crisis as his motivations to look into the subject. “It’s primarily the environmental impact of livestock beef […] We want to produce enough beef through livestock to meet the demand in 2015.”

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PHOTO/David Parry / PA Wire

There is no doubt that raising animals for human consumption is not the environmentally optimal way of obtaining food. In addition to the fact that cows emit a lot of methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, rearing cows is quite energy-inefficient: a lot of chemical energy in the plants is converted to various forms of waste energy which we are unable to harvest.

And that is part of the reason why Professor Post has chosen to study cultured beef instead of other meat like chicken and pork. While he acknowledges that it is possible to culture chicken or pork, or even fish for that matter, “the environmental issue and food security issues with beef are the biggest – much bigger than pork. Pork is more efficient, and chicken is more efficient.”

But there is another reason why beef was the subject of his research.

“We want to make a hamburger and the financier was an American, so he was more interested in beef than in pork.” And I later found out that the financier is, much to my surprise, the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin – and thus cultured meat is sometimes also dubbed as the “Google meat”.

However, if eating beef is so hazardous to the environment, why shouldn’t we just stop eating meat and convert to vegetarianism? Prof Post does not think it is likely to happen due to the difficulty involved in convincing people to become vegetarians. “We already know that there are problems with production, so we could have all become vegetarians, but we still like meat too much.”

“And not only that, but we need to tell the upcoming middle class in India and China, who for the first time can afford meat to refrain from it and stay vegetarian – it’s not going to work.”

But the most important aspect of food is probably food safety. Professor Post thinks that, as cultured beef is to all intents and purposes the same product as we get from a cow, it is naturally safe.

And there is an additional benefit of eating meat. “We know the sample we are taking from is 100 per cent man-cow disease-free, or disease-free in general. And also the beef that we are producing is by definition bacteria-free.”

However, he admits that there are drawbacks to culturinge beef in a petri dish. “If you grow so many cells, [and] if you let them multiply so many times, there may be a cancer cell in there that you are not aware of.” And he emphasises the need for quality control in every batch of the cell culture. If he finds a cancer cell or a cancerous tumour in the beef, then that production line has to be thrown away.

But he also maintains that there may not be a big problem with eating cancerous beef cells. “The biggest issue was actually what the risk of a cancer cell slipping through the control system [is]. Then you have think what happens if you eat a cancer cell – probably nothing, because it gets killed in the stomach anyway; it gets digested so it will never enter the body in a live situation.”

And he also disagrees that allergies may result as in the case of some GM crops. “All the cells that we are using are the cells that we eat, and as far as I know, beef is not very allergenic; the materials that we are using are either synthetic and not allergenic at all, or from the same cow and are not allergenic […] If you start using whole materials from plants or from, for instance, shellfish or something, or insects for that matter, you would run the risk of allergies.”

Given the controversial nature of his research, I couldn’t help but to put forward an ethical question to him: is he trying to play God? Professor Post is quick to deny that. “This is just a technology to grow tissue. What we have been doing for medical purposes for the last 20 years. This is not creating a new creature; it’s just growing muscle tissue that has no conscious, has no soul, has no identity.”

“It’s like when you grow a plant or fungus – it’s the same thing, it’s just a different type of cell that you use.”

Currently, cultured beef is presented as a piece of meat in a hamburger. Professor Post says that he wants to try making a steak in the lab, yet he admits that it is much harder to make. “The reason why we create only small pieces of muscle and you assemble them to make a hamburger is that in cell culture and in tissue culture, you rely on diffusion of oxygen and nutrients into the central of the tissue. if you want to make a thicker piece of tissue, you can no longer rely on the diffusion, you need a perfusion system like a circulatory system and blood vessel system if you like. And then you combine two systems, the blood vessel system and the skeletal-muscle system, and the combination of the two can be more difficult.”

So has it been done yet? “Yeah, it has – it’s small-scale. Not with skeletal-muscle, but with heart tissue and liver tissue, for instance.”

When there was a taster session back in August 2013, tasters were asked to judge on the likeliness of the cultured beef to real beef in terms of its taste, colour and texture. But why does he have to imitate real beef, and not to brand it as “cultured beef” which tastes different? Professor Post compared it with vegetarian hamburgers.

“Those are products that look a bit the same, are meant to be substitute as meat, but they taste differently, they feel differently – it’s just not very appealing. People if they choose, they choose real meat if they are not vegetarians. So in order to really make an impact on beef production and consumption, you need to make something that is just as appealing as beef, and just as appealing as beef is pretty much the same as trying to make it the same.”

But still, Prof Post iterates that vegetarians should not eat cultured meat simply because animals are not killed in the process.

“Vegetarians have chosen to eat a completely vegetarian diet of vegetable proteins, and they are always more efficient to make and to grow than even cultured beef. So being a vegetarian is always better for the environment than being a cultured beef eater.”

“If vegetarians start to eat this cultured beef, I would consider that a sort of unwanted side-effect,” he adds.

Cultured beef is still a long way from occupying  the freezers in a supermarket: it is extremely expensive and the public is still not fully informed about the product, yet Professor Post is optimistic about it – and perhaps we should be as well.

Prof Post was also speaking in the Oxford University Biological Society before the interview. Go to https://www.facebook.com/OxfordUniversityBiologicalSociety for more information about the society and its events.

FEATURED PHOTOS/David Parry / PA Wire