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Lab-grown meat: a vegetarian’s viewpoint

A new culture of beef eating?

Note from The Picky Glutton: this is a guest post from The Flame Haired Squelchie, a trusted dining companion and also a wilting vegetarian oenophile who occasionally acts as my pseudo-romantic interest when we’re checking out restaurants for romantic ambience

As a journalist who has abandoned the consumption of meat in favour of vegetarianism, I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Professor Mark Post’s much-hyped and highly publicised cultured beef, a form of artificially grown meat funded by Google co-founder Sergei Brin. I’d actually agreed to taste the stuff, but the public tasting turned out to involve a gallery of journalists watching Post and only two invited guests – food scientist Hanni Rützler and author Josh Schonwald – eat the stuff.

What is it?

The meat is cultured from a cell taken from a biopsy of muscle from a slaughtered cow. It’s grown into short, fine strips in doughnut shaped trays about 1cm in circumference. These are designed to replicate the tendons along which muscle cells would form in nature. These are bathed in a growing medium which includes bovine foetal plasma and antibiotics.

cultured beef artificial meat held by professor post of the university of maastricht

A petri dish of lab grown beef.
Independent photography was prohibited at the public tasting, so all shots have been provided by a PR company with a press website designed by an incompetent moron.

To make the burger, the fragments of muscle are blended with breadcrumbs for stability and then turmeric and beet juice for colour. Photos of the lab-grown meat in its – for want of a better word –  natural state show that it’s almost colourless. The coloured end result looks… well, like a beef burger patty.

cultured beef in its natural state

Blackadder was somewhat dubious about Baldrick’s offer of mozzarella

cultured beef grown in the lab compared to traditionally grown beef

Cultured beef grown in the lab compared to traditionally farmed beef.

Professor Post’s team at the University of Maastricht isn’t yet able to culture animal fat in a way that’s suitable for human consumption, so the meat content is pure muscle. This is a notable problem as fat is, of course,  one of the characteristics that gives meat its flavour.

Cooking & Serving

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more carefully cooked burger than this one. The duties were done by Chef Richard McGeown. The burger was slowly cooked over a medium flame in a skillet of sunflower oil and was also basted in butter – an attempt to compensate for the lack of fat in the cultured beef. No seasoning was added, not even salt.

While I wasn’t able to taste the burger, I was close enough to catch the odd whiff as it cooked, and went to loiter nearer to the cooking area afterwards to pick up on any residual odour. It smelled faintly meaty, but nowhere near as intense as a typical beef burger, which I find produces a particularly distinctive odour. The chef described the smell as ‘subtle but natural’ as he cooked.

Once cooked, the five-ounce patty looked just like a normal burger with a somewhat crisp, browned exterior. There was something of the Tesco Value Burger about it, but nothing that you’d spot as out of the ordinary if it turned up on your plate at a diner. Although the beef burger has been photographed in a bun, it wasn’t eaten that way.

Tasting

The three tasters tried the patty without salt, pepper, bun, ketchup or seasoning of any sort, even though a bun and sliced tomato were provided. While I can see how this is important for the sake of actually getting to grips with the actual flavour of the cultured beef, it’s very rare burger indeed that doesn’t even have a trace of salt in its makeup.

It’s somewhat telling that they left the burger only half-eaten, and while they said that it might be improved by adding salt or ketchup, no one attempted to actually add any. No one recoiled in horror at tasting, but there wasn’t any particular enthusiasm, either.

a cooked cultured beef burger artificially grown by professor post of the university of maastricht

Still better than a Five Guys burger.

Schonwald described it as being somewhere between a McDonald’s and a veggie burger, emphasising the burger’s realistic mouth feel, but noting that it tasted very bland, with a neutral flavour akin to cake or pasta. He eventually concluded that it was ‘not that bad’ – faint praise indeed.

Hanni Rützler placed more emphasis on the texture, which she said was surprisingly ‘intense’. While she discussed this at length, she had less to offer when it came to her thoughts on the burger’s taste, eventually concluding that its taste reminded her of meat but was less intense.

The tasting done, about half the burger was put aside, to be left uneaten.

Would I?

Although I attended the public unveiling on the basis that I was prepared to eat the burger, and would have taken one for the team (and for science) were I given the opportunity to taste it, it’s absolutely not something I’d eat for fun in real life – even if it didn’t cost £250,000 to make. It looks like cheap meat and the lack of fat means that it won’t taste of anything much at all.

Although sacrificing a cow so one of its cells can be used to culture 20,000 tons of artificially grown beef and therefore save countless other cows is something I could probably live with, the growth medium made from the blood of unborn calves is definitely well past any flexibility my somewhat pragmatic vegetarianism might allow. Post claims he is working on an alternative growth medium, but that seems like a half-hearted promise given his next point.

Professor Post also points out that cultured beef isn’t aimed at vegetarians, whom he encourages to continue abstaining from meat, but at committed carnivores who can’t be convinced to become vegetarians. Cultured beef also isn’t a consumer-ready product for now: it’s one for the future, when the pressure on global food production may make traditional farming of meat environmentally unsustainable. It’ll probably be a more than adequate replacement for whatever they put in cheap meatballs and lasagnas at the moment. However, given the choice between eating lab-grown meat and remaining vegetarian… at the moment vegetarianism seems far more appetising.

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