Saturday, February 06, 2016

Grown to Order

How do you like your steak?

New York?  Rib Eye? Filet Mignon?

Rare? Medium? Well done?

How about lab grown from fetal calf serum?

Suppress that gag reflex. It could be on your table soon.

This week, a company called Memphis Meats which is growing meat outside a live animal, made an appearance before potential investors in San Francisco.

According to published reports, Memphis Meats is already growing real meat in small quantities using cells from cows, pigs, and chickens. The company’s first products—hot dogs, sausages, burgers, and meatballs—will be developed using recipes perfected by award-winning chefs, if its press clippings are to be believed.

It also presumably means no more drumsticks, wings or ribs.

The founders, which call their product “cultured meat,” expect to have products to market in less than five years.

“This is absolutely the future of meat,” said Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti, M.D. “We plan to do to the meat industry what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable.”

While that may be slicing the baloney a bit thick, there seems to be some momentum behind this and similar products.

 Rivals including Mosa Meat and Modern Meadow Inc. also aim to bring such “cultured meat” to market in the next several years.

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams have invested in plant-based protein companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc.

The first public demonstration of a “cultured meat” meal was held in London several years ago.  According to those who were there, which included a handful of scientists and invited journalists, the product looked and smelled like a burger.

And the taste?

Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutritional scientist, who sampled a bite, said it tasted “almost” like a conventional one.

“It’s close to meat, but it’s not as juicy,” she said. “I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy.”

Then in what must be the ultimate in left-handed compliments, she added: “I would have said if it was disgusting.” 

The five-ounce burger patty cost more than $330,000 to produce and was paid for by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Currently it costs about $18,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ ground beef, compared with about $4 a pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That might make your Fourth of July barbecue a bit pricey.

So just how is it produced?

It involves a type of stem cell called a myosatellite cell, which the body itself uses to repair injured muscle tissue, according to scientists. The cells, which are found in a certain part of muscle tissue, are removed from the cow neck and put in containers with a growth medium. Through much trial and error, the researchers have learned how best to get the cells to grow and divide, doubling repeatedly over about three weeks.

“But we need billions,” said one technician.

Would I try it? I look at it this way:

I am a carnivore. I was born into a family of carnivores whose lineage for thousands of years was intertwined with other carnivores.

I like my meat red, white or otherwise.

But even and old dog can learn a new trick or two and I could certainly get behind a product that promises to be humane and healthy.

However, when it comes to reinventing food, the quest has been as tough as a $2 steak.

Artificial sweeteners are suspected of exacerbating, rather than preventing, metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes, based on several scientific studies. There have been reports of some products causing seizures, headaches, mood disturbances, and reduced mental performance. 

Then there was Olestra, a fat substitute product developed in the 1990s that added no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products such as potato chips.

It was hailed as a dietary breakthrough but came with a FDA mandated warning label that said “This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools (anal leakage). Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients…”

That label was eventually removed but the damage was done. Even today, Olestra is prohibited for sale in many markets, including the European Union and Canada.

I hope the scientists developing cultured meat succeed. It could be a formidable tool in the fight against hunger.

But for the time being, I’ll stay on friendly terms with the butcher.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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