Frankenfood or the Future? - Technology and Science Week


Photo by Fabrice de Nola.

Written by: Margaret Jacobi

In a world where DNA tests are available over the counter, cars can drive themselves, and developments are being made in mind-reading brain scanners, could laboratory grown meat be marketable to consumers?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believe it can, so much so that in 2008 they announced a $1 million prize for the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”

Four years later, as the contest is drawing to a close, scientists believe they might reach what was once deemed an impossible goal.

Not to be confused with imitation meat, in vitro meat is, in essence, animal flesh. The difference is that it was never part of any complete living animal. It is made from muscle cells, which are placed in a protein rich “broth,” after being extracted from live animals. The cells multiply exponentially and are then bulked up through a stretching process.

Dr. Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands expects to unveil the first lab-grown hamburger within the year. The burger, made possible by the support of the Dutch government and anonymous backers, is estimated to have cost around $340,000, making it by no means affordable in any sense. Post believes the presentation will serve as proof that meat can be grown effectively to scale up the process and make it more affordable.

However, this development (as it is beef) will not be pertinent to the PETA contest, which calls for an in vitro meat with a “taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.”

About 30 other labs in the world have also announced developing research on the lab-produced meat. The deadline for a taste-test worthy meat is July of this year. Once approved, at least 2,000 pounds of the product must be sold in 10 different states in the U.S. by early 2016 to win the prize.

While this concept is only now gaining significant momentum, it is by no means a new idea. Scientists at NASA, looking for long-term foods for astronauts in space, were working on developing in vitro fish fillets from goldfish cells over 10 years ago.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world’s appetite for meat is projected to double by 2050. Today, livestock are estimated to be responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 8 percent of water consumption, and 20 percent of the earth’s land. Those in support of the development of in vitro meat point to these statistics as evidence of the need for a more sustainable means of production.

Another case for in vitro meat is founded in the claim that it, as a controlled product, is less susceptible to carry bacteria. “Because such alternatives can be produced under controlled conditions impossible to maintain in traditional animal farms, they can be safer, more nutritious, less polluting, and more humane than conventional meat,” says New Harvest, a non-profit research organization supporting the development of in vitro meat, on their website.

But critics have already dubbed the product of this research “frankenfood,” an indication of violent apprehension to the developing meat. This marketing campaign will undoubtedly be more challenging than some of the most surprisingly successful consumable product campaigns (i.e. coconut water or PomWonderful). The first obstacle advertisers will have to confront is characterizing the dubious status of the substance. It’s not really vegetarian, nor is it meat in the traditional sense of the word. Marketers will have to hone in on target demographics, which might be hard to distinguish.

Brainstorming for this solution has already begun thanks to The New Yorker’s Samantha Henig, who challenged designers last year to rebrand the in vitro meat.

One such campaign, developed by Jennifer Kinon and Bobby C. Martin, Jr. of Original Champions of Design, seeks to direct the consumer’s attention to the fact that the meat is a good source of protein. Kinon explained to The New Yorker: “Instead of being a carnivore, you could be a pro-tivore.” The advertisements affiliated with this campaign assert that being pro-meat is just a new addition to an already large gamut of meat products (tofurkey, McRibs). “You have actual ribs, then you have the McRib, and then you have the Pro-rib. You have turkey, tofurkey, and then you have Pro-turkey,” says Kinon to The New Yorker.

Other designers who responded to Henig’s call came up with marketing angles involving crisp, color-oriented packaging, or gourmet developed lab meat. Others still focused on “meta meat” and the amount of resources that were saved by the consumer eating in vitro meat rather than traditional meat.

However, these ad campaigns won’t likely come to fruition for another five to 10 years. The product will have to be researched more to be economical and then undergo an extensive approval process before being deemed fit for human consumption.

In an essay written in 1932 entitled “Fifty Years Hence,” Winston Churchill predicted what 1982 might hold, asserting “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” We missed Churchill’s deadline, but it’s likely, if not inevitable, that marketable in vitro meat will become a reality before the next 50 years pass.

But, would you eat it?