Editorial: Stem-cell burgers: The food of the future

Lisa Yates
lyates@weeklycitizen.com

It has the look, feel and taste of a conventional hamburger, but it's not. It's a stem-cell burger and, according to scientists, it's the food of the future.

Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology and tissue engineering, created it at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The purpose is to find a sustainable alternative to meat production that's more ethical and environmentally-friendly.

Following the first-ever public tasting event, Aug. 5, in London, the animal rights group PETA threw its support behind the initiative.

Apparently, no animals are harmed in the creation of a stem-cell burger.

The "in vitro meat" is created in a lab from little pieces of fresh cow muscle taken from a biopsy of a living cow. Scientists then feed and nurture the cells so they multiple to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of meat.

These cells then "bulk up" to form strands. It took nearly 20,000 strands to make a single 5-ounce hamburger patty. Red beet juice and saffron had to be added to the final product because cultured beef is white.

It is biogenically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow, with no genetic modification needed. At the end of the process, the final result is edible muscle tissue that can be ground to create minced meat and, ultimately, a tasty hamburger!

I'd certainly be willing to give it a try. It's got to be a healthier alternative for meat-lovers.

After all, the beef would be free of the antibiotics and chemicals that are found in much of today's beef.

The majority of beef production in the United States is done through high-intensity feeding programs where the cattle are "finished" on feed lots. These cattle are fed large amounts of grain (usually corn) which has to be produced in massive amounts to support the animals' rapid growth. Because these cattle are typically kept in cramped, stressful situations and fed such a rich diet, they are particularly prone to disease, and are thus given antibiotics and chemicals to keep them healthy.

I may have to wait another 10 or 20 years to taste a stem-cell burger. It took approximately $332,000 to produce the first cultured beef grown in a laboratory.

Production costs will have to come down considerably before this meat is commercially available. Also, the entire industry industry will have to make adjustments. Hopefully that will happen before it's too late.

As the world's population grows to an estimated 9 billion by the middle of the century, experts believe even intense livestock farming processes will not be able to match the demand for meat.

Cultured beef paves the way for food production that does not burden the environment or require so much livestock for meat. That has to please environmentalists.

Environmentalists claim that high-intensity feedlots for cattle rarely have access to enough farmland for all the manure they produce. Manure contains contaminant's that can seep into groundwater or runoff streams and pollute drinking water.

In addition, the industry is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for transportation of cattle between the different stages of production and eventually to slaughter plants.

Most of us don't think about the environmental costs of meat production when we roll through the drive-thru to get a burger. Perhaps there's a better way to enjoy a hamburger and cultured beef is it.

Of course, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association will have to support any changes in the industry, or it just won't happen in our country. It's that simple.

NCBA is the main trade association and lobbying group for the U.S. cattle industry. It lobbies, channels political contributions, advertises, and engages in public relations on behalf of its members.

According to the NCBA, its mission is to "increase profit opportunities for cattle and beef producers by enhancing the business climate and building consumer demand."

If you stand in the way of the NCBA, prepare for a fight. This is a powerful group.

Oprah Winfrey learned that the hard way. A group of Texas cattlemen took her to court saying she drove down cattle prices by misleading and frightening consumers talking about mad cow disease on her show.

Under what are known as Food Disparagement laws or "Veggie-Libel" laws, it is illegal for a person or persons to knowingly spread false information about perishable food items with malicious intent. The NCBA claimed that discussing mad cow on television hurt the market.

Oprah won her case, but I'm sure she'll never say anything bad about a hamburger again. I wonder what she thinks of the stem-cell burger.

What about you? Would you be willing to give this food of the future a try?

Tweet me and let me know.

Lisa Yates is the editor of Gonzales Weekly Citizen. Follow her on Twitter @Lisa_editor.