Published February 20, 2012
While the news of the world's first "test-tube meat” made from a cow's stem cells may be a break through for the scientific community, the thought of a petri dish hamburger is bound to turn the stomach of many Americans.
“That would be a really hard sell in this country; especially where people are schooled and educated about where their meat is coming from,” says Linda Smith, general manager of the Philadelphia-based meat purveyor Esposito's Meats, who's been selling meat for more than 100 years.
While Smith concedes there is a novelty factor, she says her customers are increasingly looking for meat that's grass-fed, grass-finished, antibiotic-free, although that is still the minority of her business.
“I may sell 20 percent grass fed compared to 80 percent grain feed. But to take that leap, it’s completely different,” she said.
Speaking at a major science conference, Dr. Mark Post, the head of physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, announced he’s succeeded in making thin sheets of cow muscle created from the animal’s stem cells. Currently, Post has the beginnings of a product that mimics meat, but says by the Fall he hopes to have 3000 pieces or so of muscle and a few hundred pieces of fatty tissue that will be minced together and pressed into a patty.
If Post gets his way, the hamburger, which will cost more than $290,000 to produce, would be cooked up by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, southern England.
Those who support Post’s project, and others like his, say it's a way to reduce the number of cattle farmed for food -- one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, especially as demand for meat increases.
“It’s an advancement in for places, like Third World countries where there isn’t enough to eat. It won’t work (in the U.S.) as a marketing tool,” says Smith. “Most people have gotten away from genetically modified food.”
Some meat producers and chefs are intrigued by the idea of growing meat outside the animal --less focused on taste per se, but more on the possibility of feeding people.
"As a chef I'm automatically drawn to natural products. So my first thought when reading about this development was definitely negative and completely opposed. After thinking it through and understanding the possibilities of serious food shortages in the future. I've come around to the idea that the development of test tube burgers, if found to be safe for consumption, can't hurt if used in an emergency," Adam Sobel, executive chef, Bourbon Steak in Washington D.C.
But Jeanne Colleluori, spokeswoman for the Wegmens supermarket chain, says it’s too early to tell if consumers would go for something like this.
“This is in such an early stage, it would have to go through a number of steps before it would be acceptable for human consumption.”
Colleluori says if test tube meat was approved by the USDA, the consumer will ultimately decide based on taste and price.
“If consumers don’t like it, they will stay away," she said.