In his May 2011 article “Test-Tube Burgers,” Michael Specter, science writer for the New Yorker, wrote about research into producing meat for human consumption in laboratories. Researchers have been experimenting with lab-grown meat for 10 years. Specter recently traveled to labs in the Netherlands and North Carolina to meet with scientists who discussed the progress they have made in developing the in vitro meat.
In an interview with NPR, Specter explained how the process works. NPR reported:
Currently tissue scientists are taking stem cells from pigs and putting them in nutrient broth-filled petri dishes, where they rapidly grow. The biggest slab of meat grown so far is about the size of a contact lens and contains millions of cells. The next step . . . is trying to take these cells and turn them into muscle tissue, using biodegradable scaffolding platforms.
The goal is to eventually produce meat in the lab in quantities large enough to sell in grocery stores and feed an ever-growing population.
At first blush, the concept seems bizarre. Specter told Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, “There is something inherently creepy about [growing meat in labs]. But there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat. They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people.”
In addition to having a positive impact on animal welfare, Specter added that there are several other advantages to lab-grown meat. By replacing animal meat with in vitro meat, Specter explained, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease significantly since livestock are large producers of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. In addition, scientists would be able to precisely control the fat content of meat, creating a benefit to consumers who want a leaner product.
Perhaps most significant, however, is the effect that lab-produced could potentially have on food safety. Scientists point out that producing meat in a secure and sterile environment, such as a laboratory, would dramatically reduce the possibility of bacterial contamination. Moreover, producing meat in vitro would take the slaughtering and processing steps, stages where microbial contamination can often occur, out of the meat production equation. Of course, it is far too early to know the true safety of lab-produced meat, but nonetheless, it is an interesting idea to ponder.