A burger at 250,000 Euros!

A Taste of Tomorrow

There go the scientists again, playing or defying God! The world’s first synthetic beef burger was shown to the press by Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University at a conference in London on Monday. He had been made it by growing stem cells from a cow, and was developed at a cost of nearly 330000 USD or 250000 euros!

The idea behind this project was apparently for animal welfare reasons: the stories about animal production on industrial scale are well known, and there are many controversies about the conditions in which the animals are kept and ‘treated’. It will be remembered that the AH1N1 virus was eventually traced to a chicken farm in Mexico, and the extreme conditions under which the chickens were farmed were widely discussed at that time.

If we go by the way that technology develops, and what with the speed of change nowadays, it is likely that in a foreseeable future the process of producing stem-cell burgers on a large scale will have been made possible – moving from the laboratory, where the present burger was developed, to industrial production. Thus synthetic burgers of different kinds of meat may then become commercially viable, hopefully then to the satisfaction of animal welfare activists.

And consumers will no doubt get used to the taste. The tasters who sampled this first burger found it meaty enough, but thought that it lacked juiciness. This was because of an absence of fat, and the possibility of adding fat stem cells in future lines through further tissue engineering is envisaged. The burger was cooked in sunflower oil, with the addition of beetroot juice to give colour and saffron to enhance the taste.

The press report goes on to say: ‘The chef tasked with cooking it was Richard McGeown of Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Polperro, Cornwall, who said it was slightly more pale than the beefburgers he was accustomed to but that it cooked like any other burger, was suitably aromatic and looked inviting.’

Further, ‘American food writer and author of the book Taste of Tomorrow, Josh Schonwald, …after chewing a bit, gave it full marks for its “mouth feel”, saying it was just like meat and that the bite felt like a conventional hamburger.’ However, ‘he also noted, several times, the absence of fat or seasoning. “I can’t remember the last time I ate a burger without ketchup,” he said, when trying to explain whether or not it compared well to a real hamburger.’

Trust Americans with ketchup! Several years ago we had a young American guest visiting. One day we thought we’d make him taste tender goat meat in a la daube recipe, accompanied by puris. And of course we did not put any chillies during the preparation of the dish as he was not used to eating hot food. After a couple of bites, our dear guest asked for tomato ketchup. To our consternation, he almost emptied a whole bottle of the stuff, pouring it liberally on the puris and afterwards mixing it with rice too! He did not require anything else. How food tastes are infinitely variable!

There are also the issues of feeding the growing population of the world and meeting the increasing demand for meat in an environmentally sustainable way that are associated with this new development. If indeed the prospect of large-scale production of synthetic meat became viable, it will surely curb the negative environmental impact of current practices, what with bovine methane gas being an important greenhouse gas among other issues.

Like genes and DNA, stem cells have come into common parlance so that educated laymen are aware that they have been discovered several years ago. Basically, they are found in the embryo and in some specific tissues such as bone marrow in the adult, from where they have to be extracted by very sophisticated techniques. They are the focus of major interest because they can be transformed into the specialised cells found in body organs such as the liver, the heart, the brain, muscles and so on. In the embryo this process is a natural part during its development into a foetus then an adult, but cells derived from adult tissues have to be stimulated artificially in order to be transformed into the desired cells.

However, this line – that is, adult stem cells – is being pursued assiduously because of their wide potential for application in the treatment of various medical conditions. For example, there are trials underway to explore their efficacy in the case of heart muscle damaged after a heart attack.

Another point is that stem cells culled from embryos are giving rise to major ethical concerns, and hence the growing interest in the use of stem cells derived from adult or mature tissues. But, as can be seen from the example of the synthetic meat burger, there are serious prospects for their use in other domains as well, where the ethical issues are less acute.

All goes to show that, as always, it is dedicated scientists with the support of far-sighted leaders who will solve mankind’s problems. Unless the world is destroyed earlier by human folly – which seems to be increasingly a greater probability.

* Published in print edition on 8 August  2013

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