Aug. 4, 2013 at 5:55 PM ET
A hamburger that looks like one you'd get at any fast-food restaurant comes with a price tag of $330,000 — and it isn't even made out of natural meat. When volunteers taste it on Monday, in front of rows of VIPs and TV cameras, they'll be eating the first publicly available burger that comes from a laboratory instead of a dead animal.
To produce the patty, researchers will mix lab-grown beef muscle cells with salt, egg powder and bread crumbs. Beet juice and saffron will be added to give a more natural color to the bloodless burger. It'll be fried up in a pan, and seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper. With any luck, the burger should taste pretty much like your typical ground beef.
So why bother, when you can buy a burger made with real meat for no more than a couple of bucks?
The high-profile tasting in London is part of a years-long campaign to grow artificial meat without having to raise and kill billions of livestock animals — and as a result, head off a looming food crisis. Even the researchers behind the campaign acknowledge it could take a decade or more to turn lab-grown meat into a commercially viable alternative. But they see the effort as an environmental imperative.
Study after study has shown that the way farming is currently done will be simply unsustainable by 2050, due to rising population and a growing hunger for meat in countries such as China and Brazil. Plant-based protein substitutes could help head off the crisis — but so far, veggie burgers haven’t exactly taken hold in mass markets.
A spot on the menu
That leaves an open spot on the menu for lab-grown meat products, such as the burger that will be cooked and served by University of Maastricht physiology professor Mark Post.
"What we are going to attempt is important because I hope it will show cultured beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces," Post said in a statement issued in advance of the tasting. "Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven’t altered them in any way. For it to succeed, it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing."
Over the past five years, Post and his colleagues in the Netherlands have worked out a system to take stem cells from a living cow, put them into a nutrient solution, and grow them into small strands of muscle tissue. About 20,000 such strands are needed to make one five-ounce burger.
The project was initially funded by the Dutch government, but when that money ran out, an anonymous donor contributed €250,000 ($330,000) to keep the effort alive.
Lab-grown meat, also known as in-vitro meat or "shmeat" (sheet meat), is just one of the more recent twists in a decades-long effort to develop alternatives to the kind of meat humans have been eating for millennia. Several research groups are working on plant-based substitutes that have a better taste and texture than the current offerings, as well as a lower cost. Among the research leaders in the field are Beyond Meat, Match, Plenti and a stealth venture known as Maraxi.
Products such as Post's cultured beef are aimed at a slightly different market: consumers who are looking for the taste and texture of true meat, served up sustainably. Even Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, acknowledges that it's a sizable market. "It's very hard for some people to break a habit," she told NBC News.
That's why PETA is sponsoring a $1 million prize for the first venture to commercialize the production of lab-grown chicken meat. Newkirk said she hopes someone will win the prize before next March's deadline. "There's going to be a big competition for patents, so we have to factor that in," she said. "If we have somebody, they will come through the door at the 11th hour."
The benefits could be significant. Researchers from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam estimated that lab-based methods could reduce the energy used for meat production by as much as 45 percent, and cut the associated greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 96 percent.
But it will take years for cultured meat to make the leap from the tasting table to the supermarket.
A California-based venture called Modern Meadow is working on 3-D printing techniques for creating artificial meat as well as artificial leather from cultured cells. Andras Forgacs, the company's co-founder and chief executive, said he expected to come out with commercial leather products within the next few years. "Meat is going to take longer," he said, due to the technical and regulatory complexities.
Forgacs, whose father cooked up and ate a 3-D-printed pork chop during a TedMed presentation in 2011, doesn't see Post as a rival. "We're excited about the progress that Mark Post has made, and will be tuning in to see how his tasting goes," he told NBC News.
"This is a field that's going to require innovation from many corners of the world," Forgacs said. "I hope this creates more awareness for this emerging field of technology."
More about the frontier of food:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.