Why Test Tube Meat could become a Reality

On April 21, 2008 the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered a $1 million prize for the first team to successfully produce synthetic meat that is comparable to and is commercially viable to naturally sourced meat products. With over 30 research groups in competition to claim the prize there is serious speculation that it could be claimed in 2012.

At Maastricht University there are plans to produce an artificial sausage by March 2012 and hamburger by September 2012 Progess is such that one company, New Harvest, is hosting a symposium on meat alternatives at the American Association of the Advancement of Science which convenes on February 19, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The research teams are trying to develop a laboratory grown or “in vitro” or “test tube” meat. This is an animal flesh product which resembles meat but has never been part of a complete living animal.

The arguments for “test tube” meat are compelling. Imagine a synthetic meat that is produced in a biological tissue culture. It could become a major commodity for feeding the burgeoning world population. The new foodstuffs could decouple the price of meat from the price of grain which has to be used to fatten conventional livestock. If production costs could be kept down “test tube” meat could meet the nutritional needs of the world’s poor. Land that is currently used to produce grain could be freed up for other environmentally desirable uses. Proponents talk of vertical firms in which synthetic meat is produced in urban skyscrapers. Animal rights activists support the idea taking the view that “meat” no longer need be cruelly produced from sentient beings. Investigations by the Universities of Oxford and Amsterdam even suggest that “test tube” meat could significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption of the international livestock industry.

The scientific interest in “test tube” meat has been building up for over a decade. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the technique in principle in 1995. In 2000 the NSR/Touro Applied BioScience Research Consortium made history by producing an edible fish fillet from cells taken from a goldfish. In 2001 NASA entered the affray by conducting experiments to investigate the feasibility of feeding astronauts on flights of ling duration using an “in vitrio” meat derived from turkey cells. Thereafter several research teams have filed for patents concerning the commercial development of “test tube” meat. By 2009 Time Magazine was able to declare that ”in vitro meat” production was one of the 50 breakthrough ideas of the year. By that time scientists had produced artificial meats using goldfish, chicken, lamb, beef and pig cells.

The leading contenders are a Dutch team centred at the Eindhoven University of Technology and the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht and theIn Vitro Meat ConsortiumIn v.

The technology involves suspending a bank of muscle cells in a matrix of collagen which is immersed in a nutritious solution. Studies have already determined appropriate growth media for fish and turkey cells. The research teams have demonstrated that they can produce artificial meat. They are now working on two formidable challenges.

The first involves making the meat palatable. At present test tube meat is distinctly unappetizing. The meat is colourless and lacking in texture. On the plus side it is tender and free from fat. Researchers consider is a relatively easy matter to add blood and fat to produce a product that more closely resembles traditional meat. A product is on the verge of commercial production. It could be used in convenience foods and in fast food outlets. This is an unstructured product.

The challenge to produce a structured product that more closely resembles muscle fibre is far more complex. This requires the ability to grow different types of cell from the same culture medium. It also requires some form of exercise to ensure that the muscle develops properly. For the time being this is beyond the scope of current technology.

The second challenge involves driving down costs and producing a commercial product. Test tube meat is currently very expensive. At current prices the In Vitrio Meat Corporation believe that it would cost about $1 million to produce a piece of beef weighting 250 lb. Dutch researchers say that their product would currently retail at $250k per burger! Scientists believe that costs will fall with investment and commercial scale up  of their processes.

Regardless of the ethical issues test tube meat is an emerging technology. It is only a matter of time before it becomes a commercial reality. Expect it to make a first appearance in a fast food restaurant in the recent future.