The world’s first artificial beef burger was launched with a classic quote.
“It tastes more like an animal-protein cake,” said Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based author and one of two tasting volunteers at a presentation in London earlier this week.
The second tester, Austrian nutritionist Hanni Rützler, said, “It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper!”
H-m-m-m. Not that juicy. Tastes like cake. But wait, there’s more.
Mark Post, the Dutch scientist whose team at Maastricht University in The Netherlands developed the burger, told reporters that, “Flavor was not a major concern. We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way.”
Speaking of being detached from reality, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk weighed in on the pseudo-event. (Of course—as is their usual MO, PETA didn’t pony up any funding to support the initiative, but once Project Shamburger got off the ground, was quick to board the publicity bandwagon).
“As long as there’s anybody who’s willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this,” Newkirk said. “Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops.”
It’s expected that PETA, as always, would try to turn scientific inquiry into a morality play. Unfortunately, that mindset isn’t limited to an overtly activist organization.
Phys.org, a website devoted to the science of physics, which, I’ll admit, wasn’t exactly my personal passion in high school (or since), also jumped in with a lengthy post explaining why fake beef tissue cultured in a lab is so meaningful.
The site purports to be all about making physics accessible to laypeople, although it features such tabloid topics as the effect of color on emotions (mood rings, anyone?); the social life of dolphins (probably better than mine); and the “inside story” of a new Japanese supercomputer (question: can it diagnose my Honda’s idling problem?)
Maybe the juxtaposition of hard news and soft features explains why the Phys.org post swerved so easily between strict science and pure propaganda.
“The underlying idea behind laboratory-grown meat is sound,” the article stated. “The research is highly laudable, because what it promises is so desirable.”
Scientifically speaking? No, no, no.
“Meat-eating is morally problematic,” the story continued, “not only [because] an animal is killed for our benefit, but it’s undeniable that the quality of life of many of those animals is abysmal. Carnivores often have blood on their hands in more than the literal sense.”
And after that ethical detour, we now return you to the scientific analysis already in progress.
“Conventional meat-rearing is phenomenally environmentally destructive. It pits hungry humans and cattle in direct competition, meaning that the cost of survival for the poorest is higher than it would be in a vegetarian world. But, in addition, all that livestock has to live somewhere, and this contributes to massive deforestation. And it’s hard to forget the sheer amount of methane that ruminants produce.”
Test tube testimonial
It’s mildly entertaining to read yet another version of anti-ag talking points, but the best part is the website’s attempted rebuttal of the crticisms raised about mock meat.
First, the “Frankenfoods gambit,” as the first objection is ironically labeled: That artificial meat isn’t exactly “natural.” However, to the deep thinkers on Phys.org, that’s not a problem.
“All food production interferes with nature,” is the response. “Wheat, for example, is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding and is grown on land that has been systematically altered for the purpose.”
Priceless. When biotechnology is used to create new crop varieties, that’s an abomination, an affront to Mother Nature herself. But when equally sophisticated technology is used to “grow” artificial shamburgers, why, that’s called progress and if you’ve got a problem with it, go stuff some selectively altered wheat in your pipe and smoke it.
Next is cost, since the price tag on the one fake ’n bake burger produced to date has already exceeded $330,000. Solution? Mass production. “The initially high price of a product can fall a long way very quickly: A drug that might have cost thousands of dollars a decade ago might now cost pennies.”
I’ll leave aside the exquisite irony of choosing arguably the most egregious example of an industry that inflates the cost of its products through a variety of questionable schemes and simply note that the very concept of industrial production lowering unit pricing is violently opposed by anti-animal agriculture activists when it concerns what they deride as factory farming.
Finally, there’s the argument that imitation meat may “have unforeseen and undesirable consequences for [human] health.”
Oh, you mean like GMOs? Apparently not.
“There’s no reason to expect that this would be the case,” the article stated. “Lab grown meat is meat. It’s not a product cooked up from chemicals in a bottle.”
What?? Did that sentence actually appear on a scientific website? News flash: Shamburgers cultured from bovine stem cells in a giant petri dish filled with dissolved nutrients is EXACTLY “a product cooked up from chemicals in a bottle.”
If the Phys.org post is the best a supposedly scientific organization can do to gin up enthusiasm for artificial meat that isn’t juicy, doesn’t have much flavor and tastes like cake, I’ve got two words for Prof. Post and his veggie cheerleaders:
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.