First hamburger made from cultured meat developed in the Netherlands

The first hamburger made from cultured meat was presented in London yesterday to the world press. Under development for several years at Maastricht University and expected to be produced a year ago, the hamburger is a first step in a food revolution that is still more science fiction than reality.

The growth in world population is matched by the demand for meat: according to the United Nations agriculture organisation FAO, 297 million tons of meat were consumed last year. Projected consumption for the year 2050? Almost twice what we eat now: 470 tons. If that happens, livestock could be responsible for half as much climate impact as all the world's cars, lorries and airplanes. It is being called one of the greatest challenges of our future.

How is it made?

Scientists take 20.000 million pieces of tissue from the stem cell of a cow and put them in a special cabinet in 37 degrees and high humidity to grow them into muscle tissue. The objective is to create meat that is biologically identical to beef, but grown in a lab rather than in a field as part of a cow.

Professor Mark Post, tissue engineer and cardio-vascular doctor, has been working on perfecting cultured meat at Maastricht University for several years. Finally, after a year of delay and further funding of 250.000 euros, put up (origninally anonymously) by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, three hamburgers have been made.

The first was eaten in Maastricht, while the second was cooked as a practice run over the weekend. The third is the great unveiling in London, being shown on television. Among the tasters will be the Chicago-based author of Taste of Tomorrow, Josh Schonwald, and an Austrian food trends researcher, Hanni Rützler of the Future Food Studio. Post, when tasting his creation, said, "Let me put it this way: it didn’t taste spectacular, but it was good enough."

For Brin, the decision to invest in the technology for animal welfare reasons. "When you see how these cows are treated, it's certainly something I'm not comfortable with," he said.

In your local supermarket

Already, nearly 50 per cent of meat is processed for products like pizza or smoked sausages in cans of soup.

According to Post, these could be replaced by cultured meat. "If all this were replaced it would mean 40 million less animals slaughtered each year, 40 per cent less farm land needed, 30 per cent less water use and 30 per cent less energy use."

Still, he admits such a scenario remains far off into the future. "This is still science fiction. The hamburger is a prototype, a proof of concept. The project has already cost a total of 800.000 euros and we can only mimic meat. We haven’t got a nice steak yet."

The near future

There are a number of difficulties in increasing the manufacture of cultured meat, says Post. "One problem is the blood serum that is used to grow the muscle cells in," he said. "It is extracted from the blood of calves and cattle, but of course you naturally want to use as little as possible animal additions in cultured meat. That is an Achilles’ heel, but we have already done tests with a synthetic serum, which were promising. I am confident that they will succeed."

So is Post’s financier, Brin is hoping that cultured meat will be developed for commercial purposes within five years. Post, however, thinks that is a bit optimistic, as the cost of a pilot plant is estimated at around 100 million euros.

"In the most positive scenario, cultured meat burgers will able to be bought for consumption in 10 to 20 years," he said.

Sources: Volkskrant, Guardian, Dichtbij

Alexandra Gowling


Alexandra Gowling

Alexandra is an Australian citizen and an experienced expat, having spent (quite a bit of) time in Asia before coming to the Netherlands a year ago. She enjoys writing, reading...

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