Jolley: Will Frankenmeat escape the lab?

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Monday, August 5, is a day that will live forever in culinary infamy. On that grim and foreboding day, the first-ever public tasting of a lab-grown faux burger took place in London, a town not known throughout the ages as a center of fine dining.

The burger was touted as "Cultured Beef," not to be mistaken for a fine, well aged patty made with premium cuts of real, grown-on-the-hoof bovine meat.  The infamous little quarter pounder was the result of years of laboratory labor and it “represents a first step toward a sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternative to meat production,” according to Mark Post, a ‘mad scientist’ professor at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University.

Although the generally accepted way to cook a really great burger is on the grill, this chunk of artificial food – which could only make PETA happy – was tossed in a frying pan and offered to Josh Schonwald, an author who writes on the future of food, and Hanni Rutzler, an Austrian food researcher.  No Dutch foodies were invited to step up to the table.

Michelle Kretzer, writing for the PETA Files, otherwise known as PETA’s official blog, went way overboard with her reporting.  Her headline was ripped from the script of a Mel Brooks movie: Success! Taste-Testers Love First Bite of Lab-Grown Meat!”  Cue Peter Boyle’s entrance as Young Frankenstein; add some of Marty Feldman’s great lab rat role, too.

Editor’s note: One of the first rules of reporting is headlines that include an exclamation mark are never to be believed and should be limited to supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer. Kretzer’s headline used two exclamation marks, making it twice as unbelievable.

"The surface of the meat was crunchy—surprisingly," said a cautious Rutzler. "The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat-substitute like soya or whatever."

Showing a little less enthusiasm than the “Love!” espoused by a gushing Kretzer who might write for Tiger Beat on the side, the culinarily brave or foolhardy Rutzler and Schonwald agreed that although they were pleasantly surprised at the texture, they were undecided about the taste. 

"What we are trying today is important because I hope it will show Cultured Beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces," said Post. "Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven't altered them in any way. For it to succeed it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing.”

To help it approximate the ‘real thing,’ salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs, were added. In a curious tip of the hat to the visual aspects of real meat, beet juice and saffron were included to bring out its "natural colors."

Only two of those ingredients are found in my kitchen – salt and bread crumbs.  There might be some saffron somewhere but it’s ‘use by’ date is probably the late twentieth century.

Right now, Post’s faux burger is the single most expensive food-like item you’re likely to find anywhere.  He estimated the cost was about $332,000.  If it was served with “Special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun" they were probably extra cost options.  You’re unlikely to ever find it at McDonald’s, anyway – commercial viability is predicted to be at least a decade away and McDonald’s has this fetish about serving the real thing. 

A Maastricht University press release said the burger is made from a sample of bovine muscle cells which are cultured in a laboratory by scientists. The cells grow into small strands of meat and approximately 20,000 such strands make just one quarter pound patty. Post claims one sample of muscle cells taken from a live cow could create up to 20,000 tons of cultured beef, enough to make 175,000 quarter pounders.

As usual, when university scientists toiling away in the depths of some well-hidden lab get excited about a product destined for human consumption, they almost always grossly underestimate the ‘yuck’ factor.  PETA may pulsate pleasantly over the product but there are a lot of ‘all natural’ and ‘organic only’ foodies out there just waiting to label it ‘Frankenmeat” and make claims that it could cause you to grow a third arm or permanently damage human DNA, creating a race of curious looking bovi-humans.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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