Scientists serve lab-made burger from cow cellsTwo volunteer taste testers say it had the texture of meat, but was short of flavor because of the lack of fat.
By: Maria Cheng , Associated Press
LONDON — For a hamburger that cost more than $300,000, you might expect fries and a shake too.
But this is no ordinary burger. At a public tasting in London on Aug. 5, scientists served up the first hamburger grown in a laboratory from stem cells of cattle.
Mark Post, whose team at Maastricht University in the Netherland developed the burger after five years of research, hopes making meat in labs could eventually help solve the food crisis and fight climate change.
But Post says success doesn’t hinge on science. “For the burger to succeed it has to look, feel and taste like the real thing,” he says.
Two volunteer taste testers say it had the texture of meat, but was short of flavor because of the lack of fat.
Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, appeared on a video shown at the event and announced that he funded the 250,000-euro ($330,000) project because of his concern for animal welfare.
“I would say it’s close to meat. I miss the salt and pepper,” says Austrian nutritionist Hanni Ruetzler, one of the volunteer tasters. Both shunned the bun and sliced tomatoes to concentrate on the meat.
“The absence is the fat, it’s a leanness to it, but the bite feels like a conventional hamburger,” says U.S. journalist Josh Schonwald. He adds that he had rarely tasted a hambuger, as he did on Monday, “without ketchup or onions or jalapenos or bacon.”
The taste test, coming after five years of research, is a key step toward making lab meat a culinary phenomenon. Post called it “a good start.”
Brin expressed high hopes for the technology.
“We’re trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger. From there I’m optimistic we can really scale by leaps and bounds,” he says in the video.
Post says it’s crucial that the burger has the “look, feel and taste like the real thing.”
Despite the tasters concern about flavor, scientists say that can be tweaked.
“Taste is the least (important) problem since this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells,” says Stig Omholt, director of biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Adding fat to the burgers this way would probably be healthier than getting it from naturally chunky cows, Omholt said before Monday’s test. He was not involved in the project.
The burger was made from cow muscle cells from two organic cows. The resulting patty was seasoned with salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, red beet juice and saffron.
Post and colleagues took muscle cells from a cow and put them into a nutrient solution to help them develop into muscle tissue. The muscle cells grew into small strands of meat, and it takes nearly 20,000 strands to make one 140 gram (5 ounce) burger.
“I’m a vegetarian but I would be first in line to try this,” says Jonathan Garlick, a stem cell researcher at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston. He has used similar techniques to make human skin but wasn’t involved in the burger research.
Experts say other ways of producing meat are needed to satisfy growing carnivorous appetites without exhausting resources. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts global meat consumption will double as more people in developing countries can afford it. Breeding animals destined for the dinner table takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land.
The animal rights group PETA has thrown its support behind the lab-meat initiative.
“As long as there’s anybody who’s willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this,” says Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder. “Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops.”
Some scientists say the flavor can easily be tweaked.
“Taste is the least (important) problem since this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells,” says Stig Omholt, director of biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Adding fat to the burgers this way would probably be healthier than getting it from naturally chunky cows, Omholt says.
It will probably be years before such burgers hit the market.
“The first (lab-made) meat products are going to be very exclusive,” says Isha Datar, director of New Harvest, an international non-profit that promotes meat alternatives. “These burgers won’t be in Happy Meals before someone rich and famous is eating it.”