Today in London, the world's first in-vitro burger patty was cooked and eaten. Financed by Google founder Sergey Brin, the two-year, $325,000 University of Maastricht project involved the culturing of stem cells taken from the shoulder muscle of an organically raised cow. About 20,000 bits of muscle fiber grown in Petri dishes joined egg powder, salt, breadcrumbs, beet juice and saffron to form a 5-ounce patty. The result? According to the guinea pigs, a kinder, more sustainable and fairly tasteless sandwich.
Quoted in a New York Times story, Chicago writer Josh Schonwald likened the burger to "an animal-protein cake." While they opted for an austere presentation, both Schonwald and fellow taster Hanni Ruetzler, an Austrian nutritionist, bemoaned the dearth of condiments, listing ketchup, onions, jalapeños, bacon, aged Gouda and even salt and pepper as additions they'd welcome. Not only did the lab-raised burger underwhelm in the flavor department, its production is for now, ironically, unsustainable and far too costly for the average concerned consumer.
Dutch researcher Mark Post, one of the minds behind this innovation, guesses it'll be a decade before lab-raised burgers will be sold. According to the NYT story, he guesses that, were the current technology employed and production ramped up, the meat would clock in at $30 a pound.
Cost and flavor aside, the whole enterprise seems a little icky. All that money, time, expended brainpower and hoopla to design a meatier substitute for meat -- if that goal registers as important as impressing a public raised on science fiction. The implied message is that the battle for a better planet and healthier food system has to start with mad-scientist chicanery, not education and a real commitment from people to shop responsibly and change their habits.
We envision a scene from a movie: The setting is 75 years from now, and cow herds have long since vanished, even those that once tramped across the smallest of farms. People subsist on gargantuan quantities of meat raised from secure troves of stem cells. But some folks pine for the old days and, rumor has it, if you drive through California's back roads, you can sometimes hear a bleat or moo floating just under the wind's hum. And at the hectic, smoke-filled downtown markets, you might meet a "butcher" who, for a hearty tip, might quickly press upon you a small parcel of the real thing.
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