New recipe for sustainability: stem-cell burgers

OTTAWA - Dutch scientist Henk Haagsman's research team at the University of Utrecht, supported by million-dollar grants from the Dutch government, manufactures a kind of ground pork from the stem cells of pigs. His assignment now is to determine whether the process will work on an industrial scale.
calendar icon 3 August 2007
clock icon 3 minute read
Professor Haagsman, one of the world's top authorities in "meat sciences," believes that the industrial production of meat will be possible and practical - believes, indeed, that he and his colleagues will have commercial products by 2012, writes Neil Reynolds.

"We have no loin yet," he reports, "but we do have a minced pork." The global market for ground meats is $150-billion (US) a year.

You can look at Prof. Haagsman's research (and related research under way around the world) in a number of ways and all bewildering.

On the one hand, cultured meat heralds the end of the Age of the Abattoir and, with it, our apparent need to slaughter 40 billion animals a year. Civilized people must necessarily approve. On the other hand, cultured meat introduces another processed agri-food that severs humanity further from the natural world, increasing the sense that we are mere units of biomass, a sort of livestock ourselves. C

onsumers will almost certainly accept cultured meat regardless of metaphysical reservations. Stem-cell hamburger will have no e-coli, no salmonella. It will have no fat - or only fat put there as an additive. Taste won't be much of a problem, since we'll probably have meat of many tastes, possibly including raisin-cranberry and tutti-frutti. (Meat has scarcely any taste now, for that matter, except from spices and filler used to mimic one.) And Prof. Haagsman says that cultured meat will taste the same as animal meat - because the protein content (which imparts taste) will be the same.

We are talking here about one the most revolutionary human adaptations in history, one that will theoretically make it possible to meet the world's demand for meat from a single cow, a single pig, a single chicken.

For all the complexity of the research, the method is now patented. (Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. and European sausage manufacturer Stegeman, a subsidiary, have supported the Dutch research work.) You identify the stem cells that deliver the maximum number of progeny cells - from which, in a bioreactor, you grow crops of muscle cells. These cells produce the muscle tissue that constitutes meat. The growth medium is water and glucose. Add amino acids. Season to taste.

The first commercial products will be ground pork, ground beef and processed meat - hot dogs, sausage, meats used in pizzas and sauces. New Harvest, a US non-profit research organisation, says that complex meats - steaks - will take an additional 10 years.

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