Humane meat?

by Lola Rosewig on February 6, 2013

If such a thing exists it may be found not in the pasture but in the lab. 

Image courtesy of jackthumm / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you ever feel guilty about eating meat? Don’t you wish there were a way to enjoy your burger without the baggage? I don’t know about you but there are times when I am contemplating existence and feel a little guilty about eating animals—their suffering and slaughter and so forth, not to mention the disapproving looks from my judgmental vegan friends.

Well, it seems that I may be in luck—at least at some point in the future. As there are scientific efforts under way to produce meat humanely. I am not referring to pasture-raised organic meat from Whole Foods, but rather to meat grown in petri dishes in the lab. Sounds crazy, I know, but consider the issue…

Cultured Meat—What is it anyway?

According to a review article in the journal Meat Science, scientists have been working on culturing animal skeletal muscle (aka meat tissue) in vitro (meaning outside of a living organism as in test tubes or culture dishes).

The process is based on stem cell technology, similar to the various tissues and organs that have been grown for medical application. This involves harvesting muscle stem cells (myoblasts) from adult animals and stimulating them to proliferate and differentiate by providing just the right environment—a culture medium that offers appropriate biochemical and physical conditions.

Image courtesy of moomsabuy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Current technology has been successful at culturing muscle tissue, but the process is difficult and the product is wanting—as far as fitness for consumption. One obstacle is that many of the components that make meat the satisfying mouthful that it can be, are not present in muscle tissue made from one cell type. In order to simulate the qualities of real meat—taste, texture, color, etc., scientists know they still have a long way to go. There are experiments into co-culturing myoblasts with fibroblasts (connective tissue cells), as well as consideration of co-culturing with fat and vasculature to more closely replicate what is found in real meat. 

So we’re not there yet, but cultured meat certainly may be a part of our collective future. What are the implications?

Why cultured meat may be the best thing since sliced bread:

The idea of cultured meat does open up a whole world of possibilities.

First of all, the environmental impact of livestock meat production is considerable. This alternative could lead to a reduction in land usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Culturing meat in a controlled laboratory environment could also eliminate public health concerns of food borne illnesses such as salmonella outbreaks or mad cow disease.

In addition, researchers suggest that healthier meat may be engineered by tweaking the culture medium such that the composition of the meat is altered—for example, reducing saturated fat content and increasing beneficial polyunsaturated fats.

Finally, this option may alleviate my guilt by finally providing a humane source of meat. Even animal rights activists like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) support in vitro meat production. PETA has gone as far as offering a one million dollars reward for

Humane?

the first in vitro produced chicken meat to be sold commercially. The first deadline for PETA’s contest was June 2012, then an extension to January 1, 2013. Both those dates have come and gone and to my knowledge there is still no cultured meat on the market. But again, this is where we are headed. Even PETA recognizes that not everyone will adopt the vegan diet they promote and in the end this is a viable option for their primary goal of reducing animal suffering.

 Sounds great, right? Well, maybe…

Why cultured meat may not be all it’s cut up to be:

The latest trend in the food and nutrition realm has been a return to the roots, slow food, farm-to-table movement.  People across the nation are uniting behind the idea that we want to get closer to the sources of our food and farther from the processed, packaged, imitation “food” that has likely made us fat and sick in the last few decades. One reservation I have about the cultured meat phenomenon is that I fear it will further remove us from the origins of our food.

From the farm

I somehow feel better about buying my free-range chickens from the farmer with dirty overalls at my local farmer’s market than knowing it was produced by a biochemist in a starched white lab coat. It’s not a rational feeling, I realize, but that’s how I feel nonetheless.

Another hurdle to overcome for in vitro meat production is the ick factor. Even if they perfect culturing technology so that the product is indistinguishable from real meat in every aspect there will still be people who won’t try it because the idea of how it was produced grosses them out.

Whether or not cultured meat becomes a part of our culinary future is uncertain. I have faith that scientists will eventually be able to create a product that simulates or even surpasses meat in health and taste. It may be better for us and for the world. It may be the humane choice. But as long as the label at the grocery store says, “cultured meat” and not just “meat,” I’m not sure we’ll buy it.

Would you?

Given the opportunity, would you consume in vitro produced meat products?

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Sources:

Langelaan, M. L., Boonen, K. J., Polak, R. B., Baaijens, F. P., Post, M. J., & van der Schaft, D. W. (2010). Meet the new meat: tissue engineered skeletal muscle. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 21(2), 59-66. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2009.11.001.

Post, M.J. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects. Meat Science, 92 (3). 297-301. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2012.04.008.