Saturday, May 10, 2008

Veggie or In Vitro?

Okay, maybe I'm behind the times—a day late and a dollar short, as it were—but at least my meat is still meat. It looks like meat, it moves like meat, it tastes like meat, and that's the way I like it.

What am I talking about you ask?

In vitro meat production.

No, not cloning. Actual meat cells produced in a lab environment sans animal in great big vats known as "bioreactors." They're calling this bizarre, sci-fi food experiment the "New Harvest" and touting it as the best thing to happen to vegetarians since textured vegetable protein. With this scientific breakthrough vegetarians can enjoy a more burger like substance from a cruelty-free laboratory source. Oooh boy!

Jason Matheny, one of the forerunning researchers on the project, explains, "With cultured meat, there's no body to support; you're only building the meat that eventually gets eaten." No body, no crime, apparently.

Here's a little blurb from the New Harvest website:
"New Harvest is a nonprofit research organization working to develop new meat substitutes, including cultured meat — meat produced in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal.

Because meat substitutes are produced under controlled conditions impossible to maintain in traditional animal farms, they can be safer, more nutritious, less polluting, and more humane than conventional meat."

Seriously folks, I could not make this up. Michael Pollan seems to have ignored this tasty little tidbit of nutritionism in his latest book, In Defense of Food. Surprising, considering this takes designer food to a whole new level! The cutting edge magazine Wired didn't miss it, however, and neither did the New York Times.

Apparently the technology has been around since at least 2001, growing out of experiments conducted by NASA exploring the possibility of producing food in space. Alternet has an article dated back in July 2006, so this stuff has been brewing... er um, culturing... for quite a while now.

And PETA's all over it.

This isn't just a marketing scheme by New Harvest, trying to create a niche market for their product. (Though don't miss the quite conscious choice by NH to showcase a photo of wispy golden wheat fields instead of petri dishes on their homepage.) No, PETA is jumping whole hog onto the in vitro bandwagon, going so far as to offer a $1,000,000 reward to the first scientists to successfully serve up fake meat. Well, not just any meat. Apparently PETA prefers chicken, as the contest rules specifically state that the following criteria must be met by June 30, 2012:

• Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.
• Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.
• Judging of taste and texture will be performed by a panel of 10 PETA judges, who will sample the in vitro chicken prepared using a fried "chicken" recipe from The in vitro chicken must get a score of at least 80 when evaluated in order to win the prize.

Sound impossible? I sure hope so!

Yet, scientists from Norway, Johns Hopkins University, UNC, University of Auckland, University of Utrecht, and more seem to be working mighty hard to bring us better living through superior chemistry, as April 2008 ushered in the first International In Vitro Meat Symposium. Interestingly enough, they too favor images from nature for their website. Hmmm, a trend perhaps? Certainly an attempt to associate their research with the natural world in people's minds—maybe even their own.

Here's a link to the 2008 Symposium schedule for those interested in checking out what these scientists are concocting.

New Harvest has an exhaustive FAQ page for those interested in reading more propaganda for cultured meat products. Note, the comforting image at the top of school children eagerly raising their hands, already creating an intimate connection between fake meat and a mass institution of hungry little minds... and bodies. Ummm, yeah, PETA, cultured meat made from "the blood of cow fetuses" seems ever so much better than eating Bessie's humanely pastured calf.


Verde said...

The vegitarian who lives here just thinks that is gross and wants nothing to do with it.

I suspect it's not for vegitarians but cheep food to feed the masses - which conjures up all sorts of social sci fi

Madeline said...

I'm remembering old sci-fi horror films from my childhood. This is outrageous.

jenny said...

One word: Ew!

make that 2 words: double EEEEWWWW!

I'll pass on that one!

karl said...

yikes. i'm not veggie but that really scares me.


Woody said...

I thought they already made that years ago...SPAM

El said...

You know, I am fairly neutral about this idea. I think of all the people who adore, say, chicken nuggets and bizarre chicken-filled taquitos and hey, they're not eating meat, or rather, they're not missing meat at all. It's a rapidly growing world with plenty of newly middle-class mouths to feed, mouths that've never even had three meals a day, until recently; the next big step in their lives is three meat-centered meals a day, preferably in their cars, a la us in the good old US of A. SO, yeah, we better figure out how to make more meat, because nobody is ever going to say we should eat less of it!

Your animals, though, are quite safe. There'll always be a market for the meat of happy animals :)

Danielle said...

Yeah, pretty gross, huh?

I agree Verde that it's not just for vegetarians at all but part of a larger science-improves-upon-nature movement. PETA just provides a convenient way into the market by being even remotely receptive to the idea.

I imagine that once the technology is more securely in place that the fear tactics will be ramped up. No doubt they'll trump up bird flu, mad cow, etc. which is already in the literature. Of course, they have no way of predicting potential issues with cultured meat down the road.

You know El, maybe that's what I find so disturbing about the whole thing. Liquified, extruded meat in the form of dinos really doesn't seem all that much different than meat created in a laboratory.

And as far as PETA's challenge that it must be indistinguishable from meat even to meat eaters.... Well, no problem since most of the taste and smell for those kinds of things is lab developed as well.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Atwood has an entire work of "fiction" that involves this sort of bioengineering, check out "Oryx and Crake", and it sounds just as disgusting in her book as it does in "real" life!

Ren said...


This makes some of those sci-fi books I read as a teen seem way to close to reality! Dang.

My bil had a shirt once that said "PETA; People for the Eating of Tasty Animals"