Friday, 2 August 2013

Cultured beef - Frankenstein's monster or the future? The test tube burger.

What's the most you've ever paid for a burger? £5, 10, 50? What about £250,000!

In West London this Monday at 1pm there will be a burger that will have cost £250,000 to produce.

Professor Mark Post, a doctor and scientist at the University of Maastricht in Holland, has been working on this project for a few years. With funding from an anonymous backer has been able to produce 3,000 strips of beef that make up this 5oz patty.

Initially I thought it was just science pushing the boundaries of what's possible and something that wouldn't affect me, but Professor Post has given the following predictions
  • Meat consumption is set to double in the next 30-40 years
  • 70% of agricultural land currently used to farm cows and pigs
  • 5,000 litres of water is used to produce 1kg of beef
  • 20% of the worlds greenhouse gasses are methane produced by cows
If these figures are to be true, it does appear we will have to find an alternative at some point. It's just not sustainable. 

The science is a bit beyond me, but Owen from works in stem cell research and had this to say:
It's grown from sheets of muscle progenitor cells. These are the cells within the body that play a part in maintenance, so if you damage yourself, they can replace the lost cells. To grow cells requires media that contains the nutrients & proteins they need to replicate. This commonly contains Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS), obtained at the point of slaughter from cows. So not only are the original stem cells needed from culled animals, but also the media to grow it in. So instead of replacing animal deaths it is merely reducing the potential amount, Professor Post has always been clear with this. But with the FBS it's also really expensive, over £100 for a litre, so cost of manufacture will always be quite high. How many cells in a burger? No idea, I expect it above a billion cells, probably somewhere in the region of 1x10e10 (10,000,000,000) cells and that's being conservative!

Professor Post believes that this producing the lab meat will give:
  • Healthier meat, as they are in control of the protein and fat levels
  • 90% reduction of land
  • 96% reduction of water
  • 70% reduction of energy

Most people I've spoken to about this cultured beef have been horrified at the thought of eating the 'test tube' meat. I would obviously prefer my beef to have been from a live cow that had been reared and slaughtered in the right way, but we only have to look back a few months to the horse meat scandal to see that the ethics of food are not unanimously agreed. It will all come down - in the short term at least - to taste and price. Long term however, this may be the way if we want to continue consuming the levels of meat we currently are.
Will the vegetarians, who are against the slaughter of animals now eat meat? Will, what some see a freak show, put more people off meat?
There have been mumblings that top chef Heston Blumenthal will be cooking the burger for the mystery backer. Would you try it? Leaving the science and facts for a second, I wonder what bun they'll use, will there be any toppings?
"The burger has been made using Cultured Beef and other ingredients commonly found in similar food products such as salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs. Red beet juice and saffron have been added to bring out its natural colours."

So, Monday, I'll be there! Follow me on twitter and check out #culturedbeef on Monday for my live tweets.
Hopefully the mystery backer is a no show and they give me the nod to try it.

Do I leave a tip? What's 12.5% of £250,000...

See FAQ on the Cultured Beef here

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