World’s first cultured beef burger – experts respond

In a world first, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University has revealed a Cultured Beef burger in London today. The burger, which was cooked by frying in a pan, was presented at a live event in front of a audience of some 200 journalists and academics.

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Professor Mark Post with a burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit David Parry / PA Wire.

You can watch a recording of the full event including – the cooking and tasting of the meat – here.  More information can be found in media coverage from outlets such as Reuters and TVNZ.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Prof John Hunt, Head of Unit of Clinical Engineering, University of Liverpool, said:

“The realisation of the concept we can grow meat in the laboratory (Tissue Engineering of Food), in culture whilst not commercially competitive for everyday supermarket shelves in the fiercely commercial food industry, raises the right questions and challenges our values as humans.  Is this what want to develop further in the future as an alternative source of meat to farming animals?

“From an industrial perspective scaling up will be the issue; from a consumer perspective, does it taste like or the same but different and like a real food item worth eating.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Professor of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, said:

“Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.

“The development of artificial meat is a triumph for both science and ethics.  Current meat production involves inflicting significant suffering on animals. It also causes environmental damage and is hugely inefficient because limited food resources have used to keep a large animal alive. Ethical veganism will become a much more palatable option, as one could avoid eating real meat without sacrificing an integral part of many people’s diet.  Indeed, this may be a watershed moment for animal welfare – if artificial meat manages to catch on and take over a large portion of the market.

“Of course, such large-scale beneficial effects will only be realized under three conditions: the artificial meat must be safe, cheap and tasty.

“Some might object that artificial meat is unnatural. So it should be avoided.  True, the meat would be grown in a lab rather than a farm.  But what value does naturalness have, on its own?  Natural meat often relies on the confinement and slaughter of animals, which many have noted is morally wrong – and in fact, the factory farms where most meat is produced are hardly ‘natural’ environments. Part of human development is to improve upon the natural state of the world, and artificial meat is just another such development.  It is not only inevitable, but should be encouraged and welcomed with open arms.

“There is one ethical downside to creating artificial meat. Many animals would not come into existence who would have lived and many farmers might lose their livelihoods. The solution maybe to combine artificial meat production with controls on farming to ensure animals that are brought into existence for farming purposes only have happy, worthwhile lives and are slaughtered in humane ways.

“We hope the creation of artificial meat will prompt a thoughtful debate on the ethics of food production and eating.”

Professor Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University College London, said:

“Cultured meat is great pioneering science with the potential to significantly impact on many of today’s global challenges including human health, climate change, and animal welfare. Whilst the science looks achievable, the scalable manufacturing will require new game-changing innovation. However, the underpinning technologies for laboratory meat production are the same as for regenerative medicine and cell therapy – stem cells, cell culture, and tissue engineering. The manufacturing goals are likewise identical for medicines and food with the need for safety, quality and affordability. The obvious major difference being that meat uses animal stem cells as the starting material and regenerative medicine requires human cells. Is it time for human cell therapy and meat production to team up – Absolutely! If laboratory meat could be produced at a cost that would make it affordable as everyday food, then the impact on the manufacturing cost of cell therapies would enable these transformative treatments to be available to all, including patients in the developing world.

“Typical cell therapies are millions or billions of cells per dose administered once to the patient to produce a transformative benefit, ideally a cure. A decent size joint of beef is approaching a trillion cells, and that’s just one family meal. The current cost of manufacturing cell therapies is thousands/tens of thousands of pounds per treatment, i.e. orders of magnitude greater than the price of even the best quality steak. A paradigm shift in the scalable production of living cell products would therefore be a major win for both cultured meat and regenerative medicine.

“To put the manufacturing challenge into perspective, over the past 25 years, the total number of human cells grown in culture as regenerative medicines is far less than the number of cells in the beef produced from just one single cow.”

Dr Sandra Stringer, Senior Microbiologist, Institute of Food Research, said:

“We can see no reasons why this product would be less safe than conventional meat – it is likely that it will be produced in sterile conditions, and so could be much less prone to microbial contamination.  Furthermore, it’s probably going to be some time before artificial burgers are available on our supermarket shelves as the regulatory authorities will need to be sure that this product is safe to eat.

“This is a very interesting way we may be able to tackle the problem of providing enough protein for an increasing world population. People around the world are eating more and more meat and on a global scale we can’t sustain this. This certainly would be a less land, energy and water intensive way of satisfying growing demand for meat.”

Dr Neil Stephens, Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen), Cardiff University, who has interviewed most of the scientists, funders and supporters working on in vitro meat, said:

“The in vitro meat field is still small and works with a very early stage technology. Scientists in the field hope the cultured burger event will raise the profile of in vitro meat and attract further support and additional sources of funding. While the promises associated with the technology by those proposing it are broad and significant – including environmental, health and animal welfare issues – there remain a set of challenges in delivering upon them. These include developing an affordable medium to grow the cells in, developing a system to up-scale the work, and presenting the technology in a way that is acceptable as food to consumers, retailers and regulators.

Dr Iain Brassington, bioethicist, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, University of Manchester, said:

“While the sight of someone eating a very expensive burger is clearly something of a publicity stunt, the underlying idea behind laboratory-grown meat is sound. The research is highly laudable, because what it promises is so desirable.

“Meat-eating is morally problematic, and many people are – or think they should be – vegetarian as a result. For one thing, the welfare of the animals we eat is seen by many as a concern. Not only might it be problematic for some that an animal is killed for our benefit at all – but it’s undeniable that the quality of life of many of those animals is abysmal. Carnivores often have blood on their hands in more than the literal sense.

“For another, conventional meat-rearing is phenomenally environmentally destructive. It takes many kilos of grain and many litres of water to produce one kilo of beef. This pits hungry humans and cattle in direct competition, meaning that the cost of survival for the poorest is higher than it would be in a vegetarian world. But, in addition, all that livestock has to live somewhere, and this contributes to massive deforestation. And it’s hard to forget the sheer amount of methane that ruminants produce.

“Lab-grown meat offers to solve both these problems. Welfare concerns can be eliminated simply by virtue of there being no real animal to suffer and die. At the same time, the signs are that lab-grown meat would be much less resource-intensive. It would still probably not be as efficient a means of getting protein as vegetarianism, but it would represent a great improvement.

“Hence there is good reason to welcome the advent of lab-grown meat, and to hope for the day when it’s in the supermarkets.

“What about the arguments against lab-grown meat? There seems to be three. The first, and easiest to dismiss, is the “Frankenfoods” gambit – the idea that this process interferes with nature, and ought to be resisted for that reason. But all food production interferes with nature – wheat, for example, is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding, and is grown on land that has been systematically altered for the purpose. If you don’t want food that’s the product of interference with nature, you’re probably going to be hungry.

“The second is the cost argument. It might be that lab-grown meat turns out to be very expensive – too expensive to be viable. It’s hard to prove this one way or the other at present. However, in other areas – for example, pharmaceutical research, or IT – the initially high price of a product can fall a long way very quickly: a drug that might have cost thousands of dollars a decade ago might now cost pennies. There’s no reason to expect that a similar pattern wouldn’t be seen here.

“The third is the safety argument: that this meat may not be fit for human consumption, or have unforeseen and undesirable consequences for health. Yet there’s no reason to expect that this would be the case – lab grown meat is meat, after all: it’s not a product cooked up from chemicals in a bottle. It would be produced under controlled conditions, and it might even be possible to design it to be more healthy than conventional meat. While it would make sense to ensure that it’s not unsafe, the meat produced would almost certainly have to pass safety tests much more stringent than would be faced by “natural” foodstuffs. For the time being, there is no obvious reason to be worried.

“All around the world, demand for meat is increasing, and is probably unsustainable.  At the same time, many carnivores are guilty carnivores: they know that meat-eating is problematic, but like it too much to give it up. Lab grown meat offers the chance of supplying the world with the food it wants, but with a minimised moral cost. That seems like a good thing all around.”

 

The UK Food Standards Agency has issued the following statement, in case it’s of use:

“As the competent authority for novel foods in the UK, the Food Standards Agency is closely following emerging technologies and developments concerning novel protein sources as food.

“‘In vitro’ or cultured meat is not yet commercially viable, but the technology used to produce cultured meat could be advanced enough for trials to take place.  Any novel food, or food produced using a novel production process, must undergo a stringent and independent safety assessment before it is placed on the market.

“Anyone seeking approval of an in vitro meat product would have to provide a dossier of evidence to show that the product is safe, nutritionally equivalent to existing meat products, and will not mislead the consumer. This would be evaluated under the EU regulation for novel foods, prior to a decision on authorisation. There have been no such applications to date.”