Abstract In a quest to improve the efficiency and quality of the Modern Western Food System, scientists are searching

for a means to develop meat in vitro. A recent article in the Journal of Food Science and Technologyi provides a prospectus on how far this technology has developed as of December 2010. If you are concerned about the presence of genetically modified foods in your diet, or the possibility of consuming milk or meat from cloned animals, or the likelihood of eating food that has been irradiated, then you will certainly want to be aware of this development in food science. In the following article we provide a closer look at the history and future of what some are referring to as “test tube meat.”

The Unlikely Origin of the New, New White Meat
By Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. February 2011

Gentlemen, let’s imagine that you finally landed a date with that special someone. In fact, let’s keep it interesting. She is a beautiful, special someone. Being eager to impress her you decide to take her out to that high-end steakhouse downtown. As she sits down to her filet mignon and you prepare to get down on your porterhouse, the two of you overhear a conversation at the next table. “The steak here is great. I heard that their beef comes from a lab in Maryland.”

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“Excuse me?” You interject at the sheer preposterousness of this idea.”Did you say that this beef comes from a lab? What does that mean?” “The meat used at this restaurant is grown in test tubes. It is much more humane that raising cows in feedlots. And on top of that it is great. Every cut is just as good as the last!” The Bizarre Reality of It All The bizarre reality is that we are not far from eating “meat” that is raised (or perhaps I should say “cultured”) in vitroii. Jason Matheny a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is founder of the non-profit group New Harvest. New Harvest is a consortium of scientists who work in or around the field of tissue engineering. The mission of New Harvest is to develop “new meat substitutes, including cultured meat — meat produced in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal.” The technology is not as new as one might think. As early as 2003 a group of Australian artists served laboratory produced meat at an invitation-only dinner party. NASA has also experimented with laboratory produced goldfish meat as early as 2000. As an aside, it is my opinion that goldfish meat should not be eaten from any source; but that is a matter for another article. If the technology is not new, the idea is downright old. Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1952 novel, The Space Merchants provided a very early introduction to the idea of cultured meat. And as proof that wit is not synonymous with wisdom, in his 1932 essay Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill wrote, We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. The Purpose of It All Could I make up a story this bizarre? After hearing of it, those who possess a relatively normal disposition and a near average intellect usually ask, “Why? Why would they try to do that?” After pondering that question for some time it occurred to me that this newest Franken-Food is not actually bizarre at all. Well, it is bizarre in the sense that it is out of the ordinary. So if we look at the whole of human history, it is not ordinary for meat to be cultured in Petri dishes for human consumption. It is not even ordinary for people to try to culture meat in Petri dishes for human consumption. As best I can determine (and I may be wrong), no group of people ever sought to do such a thing: nowhere on the planet and nowhere in the thousands of years of human history. However, it is not bizarre in the sense that it is not out of the ordinary when we examine the ways in which science is practiced in Western culture. In fact it fits a pattern. In a culture where companies engineer food seeds to be sterile, and researchers advocate the consumption of meat and milk from cloned animals, and scientists modify tomatoes genetically so that bacteria will not eat them, and they also modify corn genetically so that insects will not eat it, beef grown in a test tube is not very unusual. Perhaps the bacteria and the insects are smarter than we might acknowledge.

A publication of Sankoré Institute www.sankoreinstitute.org

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But whether or not cultured meat is bizarre does not really help us to understand the purpose of it all. Proponents of lab-created meat point to a few benefits of the new Franken-Food. First among these is that it would help to fight world hunger. The line of reasoning is that demand for meat is increasing and cultured meat provides a low cost product for the meat market. Interestingly enough it has long been argued that cows need to be grown on feedlots to satisfy the high demand for low-cost beef; and that chickens need to be grown in battery cages to satisfy the high demand for low-cost chicken; and that salmon need to be grown in overpopulated fish farms to satisfy the need for… I think you get it. Unfortunately, the preponderance of animals warehoused in unnatural living conditions has not helped to eliminate world hunger. So we should ask, “Will lab-grown meat really help to eliminate world hunger?” A second purported benefit is that cultured meat would reduce the pervasiveness of animal cruelty. This is one reason that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) endorses cultured meat. In fact the organization has offered a one million dollar award to the first manufacturer or marketer of cultured chicken meat. The line of reasoning is that human treatment of farm animals is excessively cruel and that cultured meat would save them from our cruelty. We might ask, “What’s cultured meat got to do with it? Why not just stop treating animals cruelly and raise farm animals normally?” A third purported benefit is that it would provide a healthier diet. The line of reasoning is that because it is grown in such highly controlled environments cultured meat could be a delivery mechanism for desirable nutrients and it can be guaranteed to be absent of hormones and antibiotics. Michael Pollaniii has gone a long way in helping us to understand the health benefits of processed foods. The take home message of Pollan’s work is that excessive food processing (which largely characterizes the Western food industry) leads to the proliferation of Western disease (e.g. type II diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, allergies and mental health problems). On what basis should we expect cultured meat to yield different results? Perhaps a fourth benefit would be that Taco Bell’s customers would know the origin of that taco “meat.” Kudos to the Sankoré staff for being the first to point out this benefit! The Science of It All The truly uninteresting portion of this whole story is the how. Growing tissue in vitro is surprisingly simple. It requires (a) a cell sample, (b) a growth medium, and (c) temperature control. Of these ingredients the growth medium is probably the most difficult to obtain. The growth medium should mirror the blood of the animal in which this meat would normally grow. Now if you were growing human tissue, you could purchase 500 mL of the needed growth medium for just over $250.00. Once obtained, a spongy sheet is saturated in the growth medium, and the cells are added to the sheet. The sheet, growth medium, and cell culture are then monitored in a temperature controlled environment. The temperature should mirror the body temperature of the animal in which this meat would normally grow. Once the cells have replicated, the sheet is stretched in order to increase cell size. Ultimately, the meat is removed from the sheet, and layered atop, beneath and between similar layers of “meat.” This is intended to give the meat thickness. And there you have it, artificial meat!

A publication of Sankoré Institute www.sankoreinstitute.org

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Or do you? Actually you don’t. Meat is primarily (though not solely) muscle tissue; and muscle has texture. It gets its texture from moving its host animal around. If the host animal has too much movement the meat becomes too tough… and difficult to eat. If the host animal has too little movement the meat becomes too gelatinous… and difficult to eat. Without developing a way to “exercise” this test-tube concoction what is created is a meat-flavored Jell-O. Needless to say, Matheny and crew are presently working to solve this problem. The Implications of It All The biggest obstacle to test tube meat is not the science and technology of developing it. As proponents of test tube meat are well aware, the biggest obstacle is the consumer and the natural repulsion many consumers feel towards the idea of artificial meat. In another STEM 2058iv article we pointed out that consumers expressed the same repulsion to the idea of eating meat and milk from cloned animals. There are three lessons that can be learned from efforts to introduce cloned meat and milk into the American diet. These lessons (if heeded) could empower consumers to wrest back some measure of control over the food they eat where test tube meat is concerned. Lesson #1 – It is unlikely that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will act as advocates of consumers. There appears to be a tendency for these agencies to support biotech and related food industries in these matters. In fact, in times past they have even come out against labeling these controversial products, thus denying consumers the ability to make informed decisions. Lesson #2 – There are food manufacturers who will be responsive to consumer desires. While many will move forward with the new artificially produced meat, there are those who will openly avoid it in order to reflect responsiveness to consumer demand. However, once manufacturers no longer see consumer opposition, they will move to incorporate the “meat” into their product offerings. Lesson #3 – In order for Lesson #2 to have any meaning, consumers must be vocal in their opposition to this technology and the introduction of artificially produced into the food system. The groups to which consumers can expect the most responsiveness are food manufacturers and politicians. It is also a good idea to express opposition early. As more time and money are invested in this research, it becomes more difficult for vested parties to pull away from it. As consumers we can and must take control of the food that we eat. As STEM professionals we are responsible to provide a critical eye to the practice and products of STEM work. Do not abdicate this responsibility. Let your voice be heard!
i

Bhat, Z. F. and H. Fayaz (2010). Prospectus of cultured meat—advancing meat alternatives. Journal of Food Science and Technology 48(2): 125-140. ii This “meat” is known by several names, including: shmeat, cultured meat, and test-tube meat. iii Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater's manifesto. New York, Penguin Press. iv Visit www.SankoreInstitute.org and read, “What are You Having for Breakfast?”

A publication of Sankoré Institute www.sankoreinstitute.org

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