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?

View Results

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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.

 

Ashley Patriarca February 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm

This is an absolutely fascinating topic, and it’s one that pops up in science fiction novels from time to time. I think Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar novels address it as a minor point – that’s all that’s coming to mind right now, but I know there are others. I suspect there’s a great post lurking about the interplay between science and science fiction, even if it’s not this semester :)

I will admit that I’m leery of vat-created meat, despite the ethical case for it. How will they get “chicken” to taste like, well, chicken? Chemicals? No thanks. That choice actually seems quite rational to me. I am not sure if I will ever be truly comfortable with the idea. Like you, I have found the best approach to be purchasing meat at the local farmer’s market. I know the people who are selling it to me, and I can visit their farms to see how the animals are treated. In addition, I’ve cut down on my meat consumption. I am certainly not ready to go full vegetarian or vegan (nor do I think I ever will), but cutting down seems like a reasonable measure.

Also, I really like the poll – it’s a great way to get audiences more involved with the posts!

Lola Rosewig February 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Thanks so much for the comments.

As you can tell from my post, I am conflicted about the role in vitro meat may play in my life. However, when I first read about this topic, it occurred to me that in my future career as a dietitian I would likely be asked about this and that understanding the process and pros and cons would be beneficial for my patients/clients.

Ashley Patriarca February 6, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Completely understandable. And it’s very smart to educate yourself on that particular topic, given your goals & future career. I think you did a nice job of explaining the potential pros and cons for a lay audience, by the way – I meant to include that in my previous comment.

Margaret Freaney February 6, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Lola,
I think this is a very complicated scientific topic to start with. I think that you simplified it well for most readers. It actually interested me in the actual science behind it, but I don’t think that you will be able to go into that and still give useful information to everyone. If this was made safe, I think I would give cultured meat a try.

Margaret

Lola Rosewig February 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Margaret,
Thank you for your comments. I agree that the concept is extremely interesting. If you would like to read more about the details, check out the two review articles I reference–they explain the process very well. But as you say, I didn’t want to lose my readers in the esoteric details of culture media, and instead hope the audience will ponder the wider effects of this technology. Cheers.

Isha Datar February 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Hi there,

Great post on cultured meat!! A very unbiased and reasonable standpoint. I like the vote that you did. Great to see the results are positive!

I am the Director of New Harvest, the non-profit research organization that is advancing meat alternatives including cultured meat. Check out our website for some more info!

We also have a facebook group where perhaps we can link to this page? Let me know!
http://www.facebook.com/pages/New-Harvest/120523511144

Great work and good website concept here.

Isha

Lola Rosewig February 8, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Thanks for reading! I just checked out your website and Facebook page. What interesting research to be a part of! Feel free to share my blog post on Facebook.

Virginia Levin February 11, 2013 at 11:36 am

Your blog had the advantage of a ripple effect:Harvest website. The positives of your blog have already been mentioned. Congrats on research well done.

Lola Rosewig February 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Thanks so much for your comment!

Angela February 11, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Thank you for the interesting post. Of course there had to be a journal called ‘Meat Science’! :)
I liked that you hinted towards the different stakeholders and potential support for the project of cultivating meat. Am curious about its future – and the future of mass farming/domestic animals.
Your post also made me wonder about the science/fabrication processes involved in fabricating vegetarian food stuffs such as quorn (wasn’t that something about detoxifying a soil fungus?), soy, seitan, tempeh etc.

Lola Rosewig February 13, 2013 at 11:55 am

Hi Angela,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I too am curious about what the future will hold for the acceptance of cultured meat vs. “real” meat. Only time will tell. It is interesting that you bring up vegetarian meat alternatives, as many supporters of cultured meat propose that it is not really different from those products. Quorn is indeed made from “mycoprotein,” which is protein derived from a fungus and then I believe fermented to create quorn. And of course there is a great deal of processing that goes into “smart dogs” and veggie burgers, but I admit I am ignorant of the specifics.

crear facebook May 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Finding the time and actual effort to generate a really good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and
don’t seem to get nearly anything done.

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