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First Artificial Burger Gets Tepid Reviews, Billionaire Financier Unmasked
5 August 2013 2:45 pm
LONDON—"Close to meat. Not that juicy." That was Austrian food trend researcher Hanni Rützler's verdict on the world's first lab-grown beef patty, presented here today at a tightly orchestrated and widely covered media event. Rützler was one of two people invited to taste the burger assembled from thousands of tiny strips of beef grown by Dutch researcher Mark Post at his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands; the other guinea pig was Chicago, Illinois-based author Josh Schonwald.
Rützler took a bite out of the patty that had been prepared live on stage by British chef Richard McGeown and carefully chewed on it. "The biggest surprise was the consistency," she later told ScienceNOW. "It wasn't as soft as I thought it would be. I was afraid it would fall apart." Neither Schonwald nor Rützler was particularly excited about the taste of the historic snack, however—in part because it hadn't been seasoned and contained no fat.
The rather slick media show had few new scientific details but focused on taste and ethical issues instead. Still, the event represented "a paradigm shift in the way animal protein can be produced," says Nicholas Genovese, a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who is doing in vitro meat research funded through a fellowship by animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "Not since the domestication of livestock has a method been so revolutionary," Genovese writes in an e-mail.
But the public at large seems divided: While many welcomed the presentation on the Internet today, others called the idea of lab-grown meat "disgusting" and "unnatural."
Perhaps the most concrete news to come out of the event was the unmasking of the mysterious billionaire who financed the project to the tune of $375,000. He is Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who has an interest in environmental issues and who praised Post in a video message for thinking big. "There are basically three things that can happen going forward. One is that we all become vegetarian," Brin said. "The second is we ignore the issue and that leads to continued environmental harm, and the third option is we do something new."
The first burger was always intended as a proof-of-concept that would bring new funding to the field of in vitro meat research. On a stage reminiscent of a cooking show, journalist and presenter Nina Hossain interviewed Post and invited the tasters to join, while chef McGeown prepared the patty with some oil and butter. "It's holding its form beautifully," he assured Hossain at one point.
According to the press package, the starting material for the burger was biopsies from two cows raised on organic farms. Post later confirmed to ScienceNOW that the material was actually taken at a slaughterhouse. From this tissue, Post isolated satellite cells, adult stem cells needed to replace dead muscle cells. Antibiotics were used in the cell culture to prevent bacterial infections, Post confirmed, and the cells grew on a medium containing fetal bovine serum, which is made from the blood of slaughtered animals.
The idea is to eventually take the animal out of the equation. At the press conference, Post said that he had already tried 10 different mediums without fetal bovine serum. "Nine were not good; one was okay," he said.
One innovation that Post hadn't described earlier is a circular structure in the middle of the petri dish around which the cells grow. In earlier attempts, Post had used two triangles of Velcro in the dish that muscle cells spontaneously attached to, but sometimes the fibers would pull themselves off the Velcro, he said. The circular structure made the cells attach to each other as they formed little rings, providing a more flexible attachment.
Thousands of these beef circles were then turned over to Peter Verstrate, a self-employed food technologist in the Netherlands. Verstrate cut the rings to produce little shreds of meat, about a centimeter long and a millimeter thick, which he ground up in a bowl. Breadcrumbs and some binder were added to improve the texture, he says.
The color was a problem: Because of a lack of myoglobin—an oxygen-binding protein in muscle fibers—the cultured meat looked white instead of red. Some colorants turned the meat red but were so stable that the cooked product looked raw, Verstrate says. In the end, the researchers settled on a mix of beetroot juice, saffron, and a little bit of caramel that made the raw burger look like a regular McDonald's burger but turned it brown during cooking. "We didn't add any taste," Verstrate says.
Indeed, that was Rützler main's gripe. "I've never eaten a patty without salt and pepper before," she said. There is room for improvement here." Schonwald, for his part, noted that the meat had a "familiar mouthfeel," but said the taste wasn't quite like a real burger, in part because of the absence of fat. Post said adding fat-producing cells is one of the many challenges that this field is still facing.
In the end, about half of the exclusive burger wasn't actually eaten; Post said that his children might get to try the rest. He didn't say whether they would be allowed to use seasoning.