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Where’s the Beef?

What happens when a resolute vegetarian eats lab-grown beef? Are there tears of joy at the moral freedom? Or bitter regret at all the sawdusty veggie burgers one ate in the years Before Lab Meat? Is there retching? Exulting? Relief?

Sadly, we’ll never know.

Monday’s “public tasting” in London of the lab meat developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University was less public than the PR goliath Ogilvy, which had been hired to build buzz for the event, let on. A coy invite it was, to this “tasting”, and it left some of the journalists in the audience feeling quite duped. Yes, we did read that it cost $330,000 to develop the meat (how much of that went to Ogilvy, one wonders?) and mere reporters are not deserving of such expensive things. But surely they would allow a scrap for all, because really, who would purposefully attend a session to watch someone else eat something? As it turned out, the invite had gotten Roads & Kingdoms on the list, and in the room. But once inside, we were all told that instead of tasting of this FutureBurger, we would be watching two invited tasters on a stage eat it instead.

Speaking as the vegetarian in question, I’ll admit to some relief, particularly once the Q&A session revealed that the growing medium was mostly made of fetal bovine serum, an animal byproduct that will at least need some rebranding if it’s ever going to be sold to curious vegetarians like myself.

Here’s what it looked like in West London: 120-odd journalists herded into snug rows of plastic seating a few metres from the Ready, Steady, Cook! style stage where the action was set to take place. I managed to grab a second-row spot on account of punctuality, which I thought might serve me well come tasting time.

As it turned out, all that would be left to us—any of us who weren’t on the stage—was the smell.

Vegetarians are kind of like Marvel Comic’s Daredevil when it comes to smelling meats. For me, frying burgers in particular tend to give off a distinctive and rather unpleasant smell: rancid in the same way as butter that has turned, clingy and generally like a cross between stale chip fat and something that’s crawled under the fridge to die. I am a former meat-eater, and helplessly hyper-sensitized.

The smell of the meat, which is called ‘cultured beef’ by Ogilvy and ‘shmeat’ (sheet+meat) in some US media, left me little to worry about. Probably because of the absence of any fat whatsoever in the burger, the faint scents that drifted toward the crowd smelled generically meat-like, but without the rancid edge that makes me want to evict my flatmate when he cooks cheap beef burgers. If anything, the scent of the butter used to baste the burger as it cooked was stronger. My impressions were backed up by chef Richard McGeown, of Couch’s Great House Restaurant (an eatery with the fitting tagline Modern Cuisine) who described the smell of the meat as subtle but natural as he cooked. McGeown, alas, was also not allowed to eat.

Once cooked, the burger appeared to be a taste experience as underwhelming as the event itself. The designated tasters—self-confessed non-foodie, “regular guy” and author Josh Schonwald and food scientist Hanni Rützler—both agreed that it had a more meat-like texture than they had expected, with Rützler describing the bite as “intense” and Schonwald admitting that the patty’s mouthfeel was similar to that of a conventional burger.

However, both had a hard time pinning down any sort of meaningful description of the cultured meat’s taste. Rützler settled for saying the taste “reminded me of meat but less intense”, chalking the difference up to the absence of fat in the patty or any seasoning added to the meal, Schonwald was a little more detailed. He described the burger as, although “not that bad”, being “like animal protein cake” with a “very neutral flavour” akin to pasta. The general consensus was that it could certainly have done with salt and preferably a hefty serving of bacon, jalapeños or at least some ketchup. Given how essential fat is to the taste of meat, its reported blandness comes as no surprise.

When you say “meat is murder”, you’re talking about a dying planet.

Despite having put up the money to fund the burger’s development, Google founder Sergei Brin was not on hand to taste it. Instead, he sent a video of himself describing the ethos behind the project, though. With a growing global population and the increasing popularity of meat as a both a staple and symbol of prestige in emerging economies, beef consumption is going up, rather than down. Meat production is held to be the most demanding and least sustainable form of agriculture, currently occupying some 70% of the world’s arable land, with the largest part of that going to beef farming. That much is easy to agree with: when you say ‘meat is murder’ these days, you’re not just talking about dying cows; you’re talking about a dying planet.

Cultured beef creator Mark Post, whose work—despite any reservations I may have—is certainly revolutionary, makes it entirely clear that it’s not intended for vegetarians. Post, who himself identifies as a flexitarian, eating a diet which contains only a limited amount of meat, feels that “vegetarians should remain vegetarians”, describing it as a choice that’s good for the environment. Cultured beef, he says, is strictly intended for beef-eaters who are concerned about the sustainability of their favourite protein source.

I’m very much inclined to agree that cultured beef is an option, but it’s not a vegetarian option. I could live with the idea of eating some of the 20,000 tons of cultured beef which could theoretically be cultured from a single sample of animal flesh, I’m much less okay with the bath of antibiotics and foetal bovine serum—taken, as the name suggests, from cow foetuses at slaughterhouses—required to grow it. I repeat: it is grown in a bath of unborn calf blood. That’s more ethical than industrial beef, certainly, but not even close to being suitable for most vegetarians. Nor, it seems, would it surmount the religious objections of Hindus, for example, whose Rig Veda castigates beef-eaters as “the fiend who smears himself with flesh of cattle”.

Will lab-grown beef turn into the food of the poor while the rich dine on grass-fed beef?

Professor Post is looking into growth media that don’t include bovine plasma, but he’s not there yet. If he’s correct in his assessment of the future sustainability of beef farming, then the cultured meat that’s been unveiled today could, in ten or twenty years, take the role low-grade processed meat now occupies. The current culturing method could be brought down to a little over $100 per kilo, with future developments likely to further reduce that cost. But it’s far from clear that anyone would be able to culture higher-grade solid cuts in a commercially viable way. Nor can we predict the long term social and economic effects of lab-grown beef: will it turn into the food of the poor while the rich dine on grass-fed beef? Will it undercut the agricultural sectors of countries that can’t develop their own meat-culturing facilities?

Humans are great at inventing bizarre foods and then being strangely okay with eating them, and Post’s pap certainly seems no less unpleasant than the mechanically recovered meat paste that goes into cheap processed foods. Whatever its future role, though, it seems unlikely that existing vegetarians or non-beef eaters of any kind will be queueing up to try it.

Even at shmeat’s debutant ball, it was left forlorn and unloved by the end. Three people—Rützler, Schonwald and Post—shared a single patty, but they left about half of it on the plate. At the end of the Q&A session, a fellow journalist tried, slyly, to get a bit closer to the plate, but was fended off, once and for all, by event staff.

Kat Orphanides
Kat Orphanides is a London-based technology journalist, lover of chronically uncool geekery and enthusiastic consumer of big dinners.
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