Test Tube Steak: It’s What’s for Dinner

lab meat

I can’t quite begin to imagine what the laboratory flesh created by scientists last month might taste like, but petri pork may be hitting the breakfast table sooner than you know.

Nobody knows what it tastes like because the scientists who created this delicacy are not actually allowed to eat their creations, but if their descriptions of the texture are any indication of deliciousness, I think I’ll go vegan.

The meat was described as being “sticky” with a texture that one scientist likened to “wasted muscle tissue.” Yum.

Maybe it’s no accident that the research was partially funded by a sausage company. Most of the cheap flesh in sausages, processed foods and fast food relies on carefully calibrated, chemically produced flavors and textures to make it palatable anyway, so I suppose there might be a market for this sticky sinew.

Feel sick yet? Try this: To make the test tube pork, cells are extracted from a live pig and then bathed in a nourishing “broth” of blood products made from animal fetuses. The cells are encouraged to grow and multiply until eventually they turn into a substance like animal flesh. Clearly, using ground-up animal fetuses to produce lab meat is ethically questionable, but scientists say they are working on a way to make a synthetic “broth” free of animal products. Would this still cause an ethical conundrum?

“I actually haven’t heard much protesting on the ethics and I don’t see a problem in that area. After all, they’re simply growing muscle cells, I believe, which are not sentient and thus can’t feel deprived of having much of an existence,” says Bonnie Powell, inventor of the word Ethicurean and Founder of the blog by that name. “Given [what] we subject animals to in order to grow replacement organs, serve as pharmaceutical factories for our drugs, and of course routinely abuse them for food, this seems like a relatively mild use.”

We already treat animals as protein widgets to be processed by the Meatrix factory for our needs. In-vitro meat is simply the refinement of this process – minus the animal pain and suffering. Still, I am philosophically (if not morally) opposed to producing more of our food in the lab, divorced from nature and the complex, holistic system by which nature produces nutrients, which we still don’t fully understand.”

From an environmental and anti-cruelty point of view, the argument for test tube meat can be made to sound compelling. Livestock production is a waste of resources due to the inherent inefficiency of converting plants to animal flesh. Ruminant animals also produce copious amounts of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. PETA has come out in favor of the idea of in-vitro meat production as a way to alleviate animal suffering and address some of the environmental issues with livestock production.

Cruelty is one of the reasons conscious meat eaters avoid factory-farmed meat in favor of meat produced on a smaller, more responsible scale and purchased through buying clubs, farmers’ markets, and meat CSAs. As the founder of a couple of well known Bay Area meat CSAs, I asked Powell if she thought any of her CSA members and would be receptive to laboratory produced meat in the future.

“While a significant portion of our CSA members are ex-vegetarians like me, looking for an ethical source of meat, I don’t see this being much of a draw for them. The humane animal treatment is but one appealing aspect of a small-farm meat CSA,” says Powell. “The others are a desire to see this kind of ecologically responsible farming prosper again, keep money in the community, and because this kind of meat tastes so different – so much more animal in essence than factory meat. In my experience CSA members tend to be people who like cooking and who like real food – which in-vitro meat is just simply not, any more than textured soy protein flavored to taste like teriyaki chicken is.”

So maybe the issue really will come down to taste.

“I cannot imagine test tube meat ever going mainstream because the ‘yuck’ factor is huge. Also, the process of producing anything in vitro is incredibly capital and resource intensive,” says Nicolette Hahn Niman, Marin County, Calif. rancher, lawyer, and author of Righteous Pork Chop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. “Just think about all the resources that go into in vitro labs.

Niman (you’ve no doubt heard of Niman Ranch meats) reflected further.

“The other thing is this: I don’t think it’s even desirable to entirely get rid of animals in farming – reduce yes, eliminate no. The best farming mimics the complexity of nature, where plants and animals function together,” says Niman. “That’s the kind of farming humans should be striving for, rather than wasting precious resources on things like in vitro meats.”

Assuming the financial and textural concerns are resolved, my worry is that test tube meat won’t even have to go mainstream.

Perhaps food producers will simply incorporate it into processed and frozen foods without government or consumer oversight or labeling. After all, that’s the reason around 70% of the processed foods on our grocery shelves contain unlabeled GMOs. Why go to the trouble of selling something if all you have to do is invent it and grease a few regulatory palms to make sure it finds a market?

What do you think? If test tube meat was made tasty, affordable, and cruelty free, would you willingly buy it? PETA, not surprisingly, are welcoming the possibility.

Image: Mike Licht

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.