On Monday, the world's first lab-grown hunk of beef -- or, as it's popularly-known, "test-tube meat" -- was unveiled, cooked, and tasted in a demonstration in London. This marks the first time that a piece of meat was created without stripping it out of an actual once-living animal. More importantly, it could mark the day that we finally figured out how to harvest meat in a sustainable way. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Before we can begin to wonder if this new creation will save the world, we need to know: How does it taste?
Like "an animal protein cake," apparently. Maybe not entirely the glowing endorsement that Google co-founder and test-tube meat funder Sergey Brin was hoping for. (The whole process cost roughly $330,000 of Brin's money, all for one five-ounce burger patty.) But the fact that none of the tasters spit out the meat or gagged is certainly a step in the right direction. However, one of the creepier bits of news surrounding the test-tube patty is the revelation of, as Mother Jones puts it, the "secret ingredient" of the whole procedure: Unborn cow blood.
The "fetal bovine serum," as it's called in professional terms, is blood drawn from calf fetuses. Its role in the process comes after scientists manipulate the muscle stem cells taken from living cows. The fetal serum is then used to multiply the cells to the point where you can make an actual burger out of it. Think of them as one grimy Xerox machine.
Fetuses are not killed as part of the process, in as much as the process utilizes fetuses that are already dead. The blood itself is considered "slaughterhouse byproduct," as it's drawn from dead fetuses that are removed from cows that have been slaughtered. As Ted Conover's investigation into a factory farm for Harper's told us, slaughterhouse workers don't know if a cow is pregnant until after it's slaughtered and begins to be "processed." Then, if they find a fetus inside, they set it aside to collect its valuable blood.
As Mother Jones points out, though, there's an odd bit of irony at play regarding the test-tube meat-makers trying to put slaughterhouses out of business:
Of course, relying on a slaughterhouse byproduct for feed means that currently, lab-grown beef can't exist without a vast conventional beef industry.
To wonder how this kind of news affects the general population at large, I turned to the most intelligent and trusted people I know: A random selection of acquaintances that happened to be on IM yesterday afternoon. I asked them two questions: (1) Would you try test-tube meat? (2) Would you still try it after knowing it comes from unborn cow blood? Here are their responses, in no particular order:
Eric Angevine: (1) "I'm pretty open-minded, and I use the phrase 'you can't say you don't like it if you haven't tried it' to my son all the time, so yes." (2) "Knowing the details of how your food is made is never good. I'm starting to waver a bit."
Adam Kurtz: (1) "Yes, I'd try it. I'll try anything made of meat." (2) "Oh hell yea! Even better. No one hurt! Mmm. Cows. Can I go now?"
Michelle Novak: (1) "Yes." (2) "Hmm. I'd not go out of my way to try. But if I was at a BBQ and it was there, and I had a beer, I would probably take a bite. Strangely, talking about it is making me want a burger right now."
Alex Gradet: (1) "Yes, but it would have to have a six-week track record of being eaten in mass quantities by people who then didn't turn into monsters for me to try it." (2) "I think that's the only thing keeping me on the side of eventually trying it, and then only because I can't reconcile being in favor of one kind of stem-cell research and not another."
Kelly Majewski: (1) "I would probably try it because I wouldn't feel so bad about eating cows and I'm too lazy to be a vegetarian." (2) "Probably. I mean it sounds gross but if I am already eating cow it's not that big of a jump."
Jason Howey: (1) "I wouldn't be against trying it if it's studied and considered safe." (2) "I might try it, but it's sounding like it's in a weird place ethically."
Megan Geuse: (1) "Yeah, sure I'd try it... once." (2) "Well, I guess I eat meat that comes from a slaughterhouse. I'd be kind of a pearl-clutching hypocrite if the source was my qualm."
Brandi Laubscher: (1) "I think I would have to pass. Just the thought of it... ew. As much as I enjoy a nice, juicy steak, I still feel uncomfortable eating anything lab grown. It just sounds... wrong."
Stacy Baldari: (1) "I'd try a bite, sure." (2) "If I knew that, I wouldn't put that in my mouth. Now I'm going to have to eat lunch thinking of unborn cow blood."
Brian O'Connell: (1) "I would absolutely try it. I think the whole current GMO thing is incredibly overplayed and it's a lot of first world people bitching about something they barely understand." (2) "Yes. I think that is a hell of a lot better than what we have to do to produce veal, actually."
Kim Brewer: (1) "I would have to do more research about it. I'm not opposed to eating gross hot dogs and chorizo especially if I'm hungover or drunk." (2) "Probably not, for the same reason I wouldn't eat haggis or blood sausage. The thought of it grosses me out. But I'm sure I have put worst things in my mouth."
Hayley Terris: (1) "Yes." (2) "I support stem cells. If you have a problem eating blood or muscle, maybe you should be a vegan."
Since it felt like I left out an important section of folks out there who this new test-tube meat is being somewhat marketed towards -- the vegetarians --- I sought out two friends who I know get all of their dietary needs met sans-meat. Their answers when I asked them if they'd give test-tube meat a try: "No" and "Hell, no." As you'd imagine, this sentiment is shared by a good portion of vegetarians.
So, then. Your turn. What's your take?
Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!