By Makiko Kitamura
LONDON — The world's first beef burger created by stem cells tastes more like cake than steak.
The burger, fried in public in London Monday, lacks the fattiness of regular meat and tastes more like "an animal- protein cake," according to Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based author and one of two tasting volunteers.
The 5-ounce burger, which cost more than $332,000 to produce, was developed by Mark Post of Maastricht University. Google co-founder Sergey Brin funded the research. Post is among scientists including those at Modern Meadow and New Harvest who are experimenting with ways to grow meat in labs as an alternative to raising livestock, which contributes 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 30 percent of the world's ice-free land, according to an Oxford University study.
"We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way," Post said at the event in London Monday.
Schonwald, the author of a book called "The Taste of Tomorrow," said the steak lacked the fattiness of a regular burger. Hanni Ruetzler, a food scientist and the other tasting volunteer, said the surface was crunchy and the inside was "very close to meat."
Post said he's still working on the twin challenges of improving taste and growing fat. Commercial production could begin in a decade or two, according to Post, whose work on cultured beef began in 2008.
The muscle stem cells, taken by harmless biopsy from living cows, are fed and nurtured so they multiply to create muscle tissue. The cells grow into strands, and 20,000 of them get combined to create one burger. One sample of cells is enough to create up to 20,000 tons of meat in the lab, he said.
Post used fetal bovine serum, taken from the blood of calf fetuses, to multiply the cells after testing as many as 10 alternatives. Current options for nutrients, usually the most expensive part of the process, also include blue-green algae, said Neil Stephens, who studies developments in in-vitro meat research at Cardiff University's Cesagen research center and School of Social Sciences.
The cost is currently the main obstacle to mass production, Stephens said. Fetal bovine serum, also used to make vaccines, costs about $250 per liter, with up to three fetuses required to produce each liter, according to a recent paper published in the journal Regenerative Medicine.
Any association with genetically modified foods is unwarranted, according to Post. "Cultured beef is normal beef," he said. "It consists of cow cells."
Scientists growing lab steaks say alternatives are needed to avoid depleting too much of the earth's resources as the world population increases and meat consumption grows. Cultured meat production uses up to 60 percent less energy, resulting in up to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared with conventional production in Europe, according to a study conducted by Oxford University and University of Amsterdam researchers and funded by New Harvest, a non-profit cultured meat research group.
In Columbia, Mo., Andras Forgacs and his father Gabor are growing meat and leather using bioprinting, the 3-D assembly of tissues driven by computer-controlled processes.
"We've already been growing food with cultures to make beer, wine, yogurt," the younger Forgacs said at a TED talk in in Edinburgh in June. "It's clean, efficient and humane. Perhaps we are ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured."
It's too early to know whether the public is ready to adopt meat that comes from the lab, though so far there hasn't been much organized resistance from vegetarians or industrial producers. Acceptance of in-vitro fertilization could serve to gauge society's response to cultured beef, according to Stephens of Cardiff University.
"What's weirder?" he said. "Growing meat in a dish or growing people in a dish?"