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Biobeef drops the moo

Published on December 31, 1969 3:01AM

Last changed on September 9, 2013 6:46AM


Consumers are unlikely to find it on the menu of their favorite restaurant anytime soon, but there's a new kind of meat in our future.

You might call it petri patty, stem steak, faux filet, test tube tri-tip or simply biobeef, but the fact that scientists have found a way to culture meat grown from a cow's stem cells has many people in agriculture and beyond buzzing about the possibilities.

A team of researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has been working on growing meat in the laboratory for several years. They started by growing pork, which ended up being more like a sticky meat jelly.

The scientists then moved on to beef, with more success. The patty they offered last week was closer to the real thing but still wouldn't make the grade in a Big Mac. They used saffron and beet juice for coloring, so it looked OK, but two testers said it came up short in the taste department. The researchers said that with some tweaking that could be fixed.

This isn't growing a whole cow. This is muscle tissue created by taking stem cells from a cow and culturing them for three months. Stem cells are unique because they can be chemically "programmed" to become other types of cells.

Such a procedure is the ultimate in biotechnology. Meat without animals, adjusting the taste by reprogramming the stem cells -- it's the equivalent of Buck Rogers and Ronald McDonald getting together to make dinner.

It is interesting that our friends at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals immediately embraced petri patties, which makes us worry. After all, that group has staked out the wacky corner of the animal rights arena with its naked women fussing over fur and other antics.

PETA figures that as long as no animals are killed, they're in favor if it. But what about other species of bioburgers besides beef? What about lion loaf, or polar bear brisket or any other species -- human ham? -- one might want to imagine.

Would that be OK, under the PETA principles?

The future of such biotechnology is unlimited and promising. For a world whose population is passing 7 billion and whose hunger for meat will double in the next 40 years, we'll need all of the sources of protein we can get.

With technology, we will ultimately be taking some of the world's food production out of the pasture and moving it into the production lab, where millions of baby bioburgers will grow up to be Quarter Pounders, Whoppers or Jumbo Jacks.

For now, though, price is a bit of a problem. Top Google Guru Sergey Brin paid $330,000 for this batch of burgers. On sale, ground beef sells for about $3 a pound. That means Brin could have bought 440,000 quarter-pound burgers for his investment -- and they would have tasted better. He estimates they could get the price of production down to about $30 a pound using current technology.

Such a deal.

So it's back to the laboratory for the bioburger. It might be a year, a decade or longer, but they say they will eventually produce a tasty, marketable burger fresh out of the laboratory and ready for the bun.

With some ketchup, mustard, lettuce and maybe a slice of pickle, they could ultimately be onto something.

For the time being, though, we'll take our burgers with the "moo" included.


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