Lab-Grown Beef Passes Ethical But Not Taste Tests

Is it possible that, one day, beef production will not require grazing land, feed lots or slaughterhouses? In Britain, burgers made from cow stem cells were put to the taste test on Monday.

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For a few minutes today, a lot of people focused a lot of attention on a small frying pan. Sizzling away lay a burger that looked much like any other, but it wasn't. It was the world's first burger grown in a laboratory using a cow's stem cells. And journalists in London were invited to witness a public tasting, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It took $330,000 and years of painstaking scientific work to create this burger. So when British chef Richard McGeown set about frying it in oil and butter, you could understand why he looked a little nervous.

RICHARD MCGEOWN: The pressure was on not to burn it at this point, but things are going well. The pan's up to temperature. It's holding its form beautifully. It's not coming apart. It's good temperature, so we should start seeing some coloration in the next couple of minutes.

REEVES: An audience of journalists and invited guests watched closely to see if the 5-ounce patty would survive this crucial test so that it might one day, perhaps, become the burger of the future.

MCGEOWN: Literally, it's cooking like any other burger I've experienced before, a nice sort of pleasant aroma, but very, very subtle at this stage.

REEVES: The burger was grown in a lab at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. The co-founder of Google, Sergei Brin, bankrolled the project. Leading the team was Professor Mark Post.

DR. MARK POST: We took muscle from a cow through a harmless procedure, and they contained cells that can repair the tissue when it's injured. And we can use that property to expand the cells. So we make from one cell 40 billion cells in that little hamburger. So the cells basically do the work on their own. We just provide the right conditions.

REEVES: Global demand for meat is rocketing. Post believes using more and more livestock and land to meet that demand damages the environment, is increasingly expensive and will eventually be unsustainable. Post says the lab-grown burger offers an ethical alternative. He's not just talking about beef.

POST: Potentially, you can do it with any type of satellite cell from an animal that has these in its skeletal muscle, you know, fish, birds, mammals, they all have that.

REEVES: So how about the recipe? Take 20,000 strips of muscle, grown in incubators from stem cells taken from a cow. Make these into a patty. Add salt, egg powder, bread crumbs, red beet juice and saffron. Serve on a plate with a garnish of tomato, a bit of lettuce and a bread roll. This particular burger costs about $40,000 a bite. That probably explains why only two volunteers were allowed to partake in today's tasting: Hanni Ruetzler, an Austrian food researcher and Josh Schonwald, author of "The Taste of Tomorrow." First, Hanni.

HANNI RUETZLER: It's close to meat. It's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect. I miss salt and pepper.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And no ketchup. There's no ketchup. My goodness. Josh, does it taste like beef?

JOSH SCHONWALD: The texture, the mouth feel, has a feel like meat. The absence is, I feel like, the fat.

REEVES: Despite that rather lukewarm response, Professor Post says this is a good start. He predicts it'll be at least a decade before the burger is produced commercially. In the meantime, something must be done about the size of the check.

POST: For this to become a real alternative, of course, the price has to be right and probably the same or probably even cheaper than regular meat. I think we can achieve that, but it's - that's one of the goals.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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