Biotech Factories to Farm Fake Meat

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The movement to sell locally sourced, artisanal food and drink has picked up steam in recent years as many consumers demand better quality products with a smaller environmental footprint and traceable pedigree. But some Dutch researchers are taking this idea a step further, proposing the creation of village-level “meat factories” that would produce unique flavors of artificial beef, pork or chicken, all from a biotech reactor.

The study builds upon work done last year, the so-called “test-tube hamburger” that was created by researchers at the University of Maastrict in the Netherlands and unveiled at a tasting in London.

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This latest study by a pair of researchers at Wagenigen University proposes a device that can create meat cells in a metal container – enough to feed a small amount of “cultured beef” each month to a village of 2,650 people.

“We thought it was interesting and most promising to do cultured meat on a small scale,” said Cor van der Weele, professor of philosophy who wrote the paper with biotechnology professor Johannes Tamper in the journal Trends in Biotechnology. “A small scale is also good from a biotechnology point of view.”

Van der Weele said she was inspired to come up with this alternative to meat because of her concerns over animal welfare, as well as the environmental impact of land used to grow beef cattle.

“Raising small numbers of animals in a village is fine,” Van der Weele said. “But the way animals are raised now is not in small amounts but in large scale and factory farms.”

The process extracts stem cells from muscle tissue of cows, pigs or chickens, and culturing them in a 20 meter-squared bioreactor. The number of cells would grow exponentially as long as the liquid culture medium can be kept sterile, according to the study. The reactor would produce 22 pounds of meat per person per year, enough to reduce, but not eliminate, demand for other sources of animal protein.

Villages could tweak the meat to capture their own local flavors, or “terroir,” according to Van der Weele.

The Dutch researchers admit the biggest obstacle is cost. Last year’s in vitro burger cost $325,000 and any village-level bioreactor would need an expensive growth medium, pushing the cost to about $240 per pound of meat.

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“From a technological perspective, ‘village-scale’ production is also a promising option,” the authors wrote. “From an economic point of view, however, competition with ‘normal’ meat is a big challenge; production cost emerges as the real problem. For cultured meat to become competitive, the price of conventional meat must increase greatly.”

Warren Ruder, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, agreed that the technology is already there to build bio-beef, it just cost a lot. “The type of culture they are describing is relatively simple,” Ruder said. “We’ve been making artificial muscle in the laboratory for a decade.”

Cost isn’t the only issue. Some critics wonder if people would really eat it. Last year’s burger was flavored with salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, with beet juice and saffron for color.

“My gut reaction is lot of folks would have the same general feeling that I do,” said Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattleman’s Beef Council in Washington, DC. “I don’t think it’s overly palatable.”

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