Lab-created meat is the future of food, but people are still freaked out by it. But meeting your lab-grown meat before you eat it can help allay those fears, according to a Dutch researcher.
The most common early reactions to the first lab-grown burger, which was made by a Dutch researcher in 2013, were that it tasted just fine, but people were uncomfortable with the fact that it was grown in a lab somewhere. Of course, most meat cows, chickens, and pigs, are grown in factory farms that are pretty disgusting, but there is a psychological hurdle to eating meat that was engineered in a lab—last month, 8 in 10 Americans said they would not eat meat grown in a lab.
Early focus group results in the Netherlands, however, found that people would be amenable to eating lab meat if they got to see the living donors of the cells used to grow the meat.
Call it the dawn of artisanal meat labs—in a paper published in Cell's Trends in Biotechnology, Johannes Tramper, a bioprocess engineering professor at Wageningen University, proposes a small-scale "meat factory in every village."
"A cultured meat scenario that generated not ambivalence but great enthusiasm among workshop participants was one in which pigs in backyards or on animal-friendly (urban) farms would serve as the living donors of muscle stem cells through biopsies," Tramper wrote. "These pigs live happy lives as companion animals while their cells are cultured in local meat factories. Worries of cultured meat being unnatural, too technological, or alienating were absent here; the idea of local production and close contact with the animals seemed to dispel these concerns."
No word on whether people would have to meet Kanye West first before they'd be comfortable eating sausages made out of him.
Tramper says he initially got the idea from a 2003 French art project in which people ate lab-engineered frog steaks while the frogs they were "eating" looked on.
Of course, with all things, artisanal, there's a huge monetary cost to be paid. The economics of scale mean that it's much more financially viable to make lab-grown steaks in a huge factory, where the cell-culturing process would only have to be a couple times, rather than splitting up the tough science work between many smaller factories. Prices of traditional meat would have to increase by an "order of magnitude" for this to make financial sense, but he's drawn up an ideal lab design, anyway:
Image: Trends in Biotechnology
"Producing cultured meat of the minced-meat type would thus be technically feasible," Tramper wrote. "Developing an appropriate, robust, continuous stem cell line and substantially lowering the price of the growth medium are the major challenges."
Tramper estimates that a normal 20-cubic meter bioreactor, which is the standard for growing cultured animal cells, could easily supply a village of roughly 2,560 people with meat for a year. But creating and selling the meat at the Netherlands' price of about €5 per kilogram would only yield €128,000 a year "hardly enough to pay the salary of one 'butcher' and his/her assistant." Adding in costs of of growth medium and lab equipment, the price for cultured minced meat would go up to at least €8 per kilogram, which complicates things further.
But at the end of the day, you're looking at paying roughly $5 a pound for hamburger meat—that's not totally insane, and that's with current technology. Cultivating and growing animal muscle cells is a well-understood process, and the technical challenges have been mostly surmounted. It's also a far superior option to factory-farmed meat, morally speaken. Given all that that, is there any doubt that someone in Brooklyn sets up a lab-grown meat club in the next couple years? I'd be down, and I'd bet that 2,500 other New Yorkers would be, too.