Aug. 5, 2013 at 4:59 AM ET
No animal died to make this burger. No bleating calf was separated from its mother; no manure polluted the waterways; no blood was shed on the slaughterhouse floor. But vegetarians and vegans aren’t lining up to get a mouthful just yet.
On Monday, Netherlands-based researcher Mark Post served his lab-grown burger to taste testers in front of a carefully invited audience in London. He says he’s grown the meat entirely in the lab, using stem cells from cattle nourished in a broth of chemicals and carefully engineered to grow into strips resembling muscle tissue.
Supporters say it’s a cruelty-free food, may be more healthful to eat than meat from a real animal, and might eventually be made using far fewer resources than it takes to turn grain into muscle, fat, blood and bones.
One of the world’s most vocal animal welfare organizations — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — is on board with the idea of cultured meat. But its leader, Ingrid Newkirk, says she won’t be trying it herself anytime soon. And most vegetarians and vegans seem to feel the same way.
“I don’t need to,” Newkirk told NBC News. “Any flesh food is totally repulsive to me. But I am so glad that people who don’t have the same repulsion as I do will get meat from a more humane source. This gets rid of the yuck factor.”
Post has said he spent $325,000 developing the burger, made using engineered muscle stem cells grown in a broth made from a calf blood product.
That’s enough to repel Liz O’Neill, a spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society. ”It is not an animal-free food yet,” says O’Neill, who adds her group wasn’t invited to Monday’s tasting.
Like Newkirk, O’Neill says it may be good to have the option. “The Vegetarian Society is keeping an open mind,” she said. “Some people are excited by it. Some people miss the taste of meat.”
Charles Stahler isn't one of them. Stahler, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), says there are too many tasty meat alternatives on the market now, from Tofurky to vegetarian chicken nuggets.
“I grew up eating meat,” said Stahler, who’s been a vegetarian since 1975. “In my family, instead of eating cookies we ate salami.” But, he says, he doesn’t miss eating meat.
The VRG commissioned a Harris Poll in 2011 that asked people what types of food they would eat. It included a question about buying “a meat alternative grown from animal cell DNA obtained 10 years ago, which does not currently involve the raising of animals”.
Just 11 percent of those polled said they’d buy it and just 2 percent of vegans said they would. Four percent of people identifying as either vegans or vegetarians said they’d buy such a product.
“Four to five percent of the country is vegetarian or vegan,” Stahler said, citing a VRG-commissioned Harris poll on that question. So some people may try it: “It’ll eventually come down to taste and economics,” he said.
In 20 years, he might even try it himself, he says.
While the meat might be acceptable to some vegetarians, it's not kosher in the true sense. Lab-grown beef would be considered kosher, according to Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in New York, but only if it was made using tissue from a ritually slaughtered kosher animal. Post used a biopsy from a live cow, as living stem cells are needed for the process.
"The animal would need to be slaughtered according to Jewish law before harvesting the cells because meat from a live animal is not kosher," says Strulowitz.
What about wannabe vegetarians who feel guilty about eating meat but just can’t give it up?
“I’d buy it,” said Marta Nelson of Morrison, Colo. “I’d pay extra money for meat I could eat without feeling guilty about it.”
Newkirk says that’s the appeal of the engineered meat — to attract meat-eaters. Her group is offering a $1 million prize to someone who can make a chicken in a test tube. PETA sees it as a way to reduce suffering.
“Americans, for example, eat a million chickens an hour in this country,” said Newkirk. “And then you think, if you can grow the chicken flesh from a few cells, that’s a lot of birds that won’t be suffering.”
People who already eat meat shouldn’t be put off by the details of Post’s burger, she said. “It is a real burger made of real meat. It’s as real as real can be. The thing that is different about it is that it is not from a filthy slaughterhouse, but from a sterile laboratory.”
Most vegetarians say they want to avoid being cruel to animals. But they cite protecting the environment as a close second among their reasons in avoiding meat.
David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences says the grain used to feed U.S. livestock could feed 800 million people if fed directly to them. He calculates that raising animals for protein requires more than eight times as much fossil fuel as the equivalent in plant protein.
Even the U.S. government not only recognizes that a vegetarian diet is healthful, it recommends eating a plant-based diet with only a little meat as desired.
“So if you care about the environment, you cannot eat the meat that is in the store,” argues Newkirk.
Nelson, a fan of Boca burgers and soy-based sausage, says she’s not sure she needs artificially grown beef. “Bacon — that’s what we need,” she said. “I’d sell my soul for some good, artificial bacon.”