Cultured tastes

Dinner in Shippagan, New Brunswick. Photo by Charlie Croskery.

We drove halfway across the country for the party, but the main course alone was worth the trip. When the pig was finally hauled out by a crew of strapping male relatives, the guests at Anne-Claire and Martin’s wedding converged at the carving table. Small children, I’m told even a Jewish person or two – nobody could resist a taste of warm skin ripped straight off with a knife. Not after seeing (and smelling) the thing turn that entire August afternoon.

I doubt we would have made the cross-country trip if charlem was on the menu. That’s what Vladimir Mironov, an expert in stem cell and tissue science, calls his latest culinary invention. Mironov’s product is grown right in his lab at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston – hence the name, short for Charleston engineered meat.

In a handful of labs around the world, scientists like Mironov are working on a curious agricultural problem: how to generate edible meat products without the farm – or the animals1,2. Their solution is to grow meat from animal stem cells. Some use cells taken from embryos, while others, like Mark Post at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, are looking into the feasibility of growing muscle satellite cells taken from adults1. These can be extracted from domestic pigs or fowl with a quick and painless biopsy, and used to seed in vitro cell cultures.

In the future, this could be an easier way to serve a crowd. Like human cancer cell lines immortalized in a Petri dish, satellite cells can potentially go on multiplying forever in the lab, so long as you give them enough growth medium. Vladimir Mironov sees industry ultimately growing “charlem” – his cultured turkey – in bioreactors the size of football fields that he likes to call “carneries”. He imagines a world where fresh charlem is also grown at your local grocery store, in miniature appliance-size versions of the bioreactor machines3.

His work is, in part, funded by PETA, in an effort to stem the unmeasurable output of animal suffering caused by industrial agriculture. In 2008, the animal rights group also announced their in vitro chicken prize for the first person to develop a commercially viable product and sell it in at least 10 US states. To be eligible, the chicken also has to pass a panel of tasters when breaded and fried. The $1 million dollar reward is still up for grabs3,4.

No doubt this is a noble goal*. Large-scale meat production is an environmental scourge. The North American “meat guzzler”, as Mark Bittman calls it, is not sustainable6. Influential food writers like Bittman and Michael Pollan, and others including star chef David Chang, have been urging us to rethink our eating habits for years7. Environmentally, there’s a lot to be said for the alternatives: we could save a lot of resources by switching to the Asian practice of using small amounts of meat to complement dishes where vegetables and grains are the main event.

According to Nicholas Genovese from Vladimir Mironov’s lab, “Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.”3

He’s right, of course. But his last point also happens to be the very reason charlem will never make it: meat from an animal is more than the sum of its in vitro parts. Want nutrients? We’ll have to add those in at the factory. Vitamin B12 and iron – two of the main nutritional reasons for eating animal protein in the first place – come from gut bacteria and blood1. You can’t get them from muscle tissue in isolation. Want taste? Let me see if we have an additive for that too…

Scientists may figure out how to culture meat efficiently in the lab, but it won’t be a viable solution to our agricultural problems, at least not anytime soon. The trouble with fake meat is that it’s up against evolution on two fronts, and, ironically, morality on a third.

First off, meat scientists have to somehow beat hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution. Skeletal muscles are made up of several different components: during development, elongated satellite cells become fused together. These are bundled into tight packs with various types of connective tissue. It’s a highly organized 3D structure that, depending on the cut (and the animal), has been tweaked by natural selection to fit its specific function.

Can researchers hope to get anywhere near this level of complexity working from the other end? At present, they can use artificial chitosan scaffolds to encourage muscle cells to fuse and bundle the way they do in real animals. But the maximum thickness possible is less than a quarter of 1 mm; anything thicker, and the cells in the centre will die without blood vessels for oxygenation1. The end result is more frail ribbon than slab of meat: Mark Post compares his product to a limp arm “when you take off a cast after six weeks”1. In structural terms, the best these scientists can do is only fit for hamburger grounds.

Perhaps in time it will be possible to make something that replicates the bulk of a real steak. Researchers like Post are working on ways to use electric shocks to exercise their meat, which effectively boosts its protein content1. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever approach nature’s product with these stopgaps. The process of muscle development has been refined by so many generations of selection in the wild – as well as artificial selection on the farm – that PETA’s $1 million seems laughable as compensation for the level of engineering required. No wonder researchers say they’ll need several hundred million to get a product in the stores, once they have something people can stomach1,3.

There is another, related problem. Contrary to what Nicholas Genovese seems to imply, cultured meat is not a carbon-neutral fountain of life. It too is subject to the laws of physics. Just like any animal, in vitro cells need food to grow, and they produce waste as a result of this process. Not to mention the energy required to house and exercise the cultures.

Currently, scientists feed their fake meat using typical cell-culture media, which, ironically, is made from real cows1. Ultimately, the goal is to use plant and microbe-based feed, although this can get quite expensive. And yet, assuming the cost issues can be worked out, it’s still hard to see how one could design the care and feeding of cells to be more efficient than what evolution has come up with naturally. Even the nuisance species, like Canada geese and deer, make pretty tasty stuff in large quantities out of our suburban lawns – no bioreactors or feedlots necessary. It takes a major leap of logic to suppose that engineered meat will solve the energy problems of modern agriculture.

There’s more. Purveyors of cultured meat will also have to overcome evolution at the consumer end – in other words, our naturally selected food preferences.

Vladimir Mironov likes to point out that many of the foods we prize most for their flavour are the result of artificial culturing: beer, yogurt, wine, cheese and bread3. These are all based on microorganisms. So far, the best reviews for animal cell cultures can be summed up as: “seems edible” and “chewy and tasteless”1.

At the very least, we know that fat is needed for taste. And fortunately, satellite cells are capable of turning into fat as well as muscle. Will this be enough? After all, taste is more than just chemical composition. Texture is part of it – bringing us back to the hurdle of replicating 3D muscle structure. Aesthetics is part of it too, including some pretty esoteric psychological effects like the power of expectation and suggestion. We are all familiar with the way context affects the experience of taste. Lots of things might be better than your Grandma’s pumpkin pie, technically speaking, but is there anything more delicious on Thanksgiving day?

A discussion of psychology leads nicely into what I see as the third problem with cultured meat: when it comes to our attitudes toward food, morality is deeply ingrained.

Perhaps this is because our basic disgust instinct, originally a response to food, is now entangled with the process of making other, more complex judgments. The disgust response infiltrates our moral opinions – including some of the more abstract decisions of modern life. Take genetically modified foods. Public aversion to these has been surprisingly strong, just based on the very idea of them. Look at how the “Frankenfoods” label took off in the media. This topic sparked a heated debate among my students. Meanwhile, the news last May that Craig Venter was “playing God” after he built a living bacterial genome from scratch caused barely a whimper8. The applications of genetic engineering never seem to inspire the same level of fear as they do when we’re messing with the potatoes.

Clearly, something about food is sacred. The recent trend of hand-wringing about how we eat is further evidence: the organic movement, slow foodists and locavores shade into impractical hippies, foodies and the snobby elite. Read Ian Brown’s hilarious article “Foodies: Are food crazies getting their just deserts?9. Or go to KFC and order a Double Down if you want a first-hand lesson in how to capitalize on food morality backlash. How is cultured meat going to get past our strong beliefs about what should – and shouldn’t – be done with dinner?

A poll by the Globe and Mail suggests that at least 50% of their readers find the idea of genetically engineered meat repulsive. Timely, since I had just polled my students on in vitro meat with similar results. About half of the class (14/30) said they might try it, although many expressed doubts about safety and nutrition. It’s hard to see how this tentative response would translate at the checkout line. The majority (16/30) gave a definite “no”. And here’s the kicker: some of the most negative said they wouldn’t touch the fake meat precisely because they are practicing vegetarians!

PETA and the in vitro scientists believe that vegetarians will be their primary market. But this is based on a mistaken assumption that when vegetarians crave meat, they’ll take something substandard. I would argue otherwise. In San Francisco, the underground Pirate Cat Radio station has a popular collective cafĂ©. They offer vegan fare, except for one thing: the bacon maple latte. It’s an illicit brew infused with “refined bacon” – pure, boiled down pork fat – and then spiked with maple syrup; sometime vegetarians use it to keep to the straight and narrow for the rest of the day. When these people crave contraband, they want it in its greasiest, heftiest form. There are enough weak substitutes out there as it is. And if you don’t have a meat jones, why choose a sterile lab product over a savory daal or braised vegetable dish? What need would cultured meat satisfy, exactly?

Vladimir Mironov’s quotes are telling. He thinks cultured meat can be profitable if it is marketed as a “functional food” with additives that “promote health or suppress appetite”1. The jig is up when he says, “Only Hollywood celebrities like Paris will be eating this”.

Have an expensive, unappetizing food? Pump up the yuck factor as your top selling point! But don’t be surprised when the real humans won’t bite.


*Despite the fact that Vladimir Mironov has, apparently, just come under investigation for academic misconduct5.

  1. Jones, N. 2010. Nature 468: 762-763.
  2. Edelman, P. D. et al. 2005. Tissue Engineering 11: 659-662.
  3. McLeod, H. 2011. Reuters. 30 January 2011.
  4. Phillips, A. 2008. ABC News. 23 April 2008.
  5. Dudley, R. 2011. The Post and Courier. 17 February 2011.
  6. Bittman, M. 2008. The New York Times. 27 January 2008.
  7. Chang, D. 2008. Esquire. 25 September 2008.
  8. Rizzo, A. 2010. Associated Press. 21 May 2010.
  9. Brown, I. 2011. The Globe and Mail. 19 March 2011.