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On Monday, August 5th, reporters from some of the world's most prestigious newspapers gathered in Hammersmith, London and watched attentively as award-winning chef Richard McGeown carefully sautéed a beef patty in oil and butter, placed it on a plate beside a burger bun, lettuce and tomato, and served it with great flourish to Chicago-based food writer and journalist, Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher, Hanni Rutzler.
What was the big deal about this ordinary looking burger? Well for one at an estimated cost of $325,000 USD it is the world's most expensive beef patty ever made, but more importantly, it is the first one ever to be produced in a laboratory.
In order to create this bio-engineered beef, the team of researchers led by vascular physiologist Mark Post began by extracting tissue samples from some organically farmed cows. They then separated out the muscle tissues from the fat and divided them into single cells, each of which were cultivated in a solution comprising of nutrients like algae extracts. As the cells multiplied they turned into tiny 0.3mm strands that the scientists called myotubes. To 'bulk up' the muscles and give them the extra lean meaty texture, the scientists then affixed the strands to a soluble sugar doughnut shaped scaffold.
The result of all this hard intensive work that took three months? 20,000 strips of cultured meat, just sufficient to make two small unappealingly gray patties. In order to give it color the scientists added some beet juice and saffron and then prepped it for cooking by mixing in the usual bindings and breadcrumbs that are added to normal beef.
As you may have guessed by now, most of the $325,000 USD was spent on the research and development effort, not the cost of material. So why would someone spend so much time and effort, not to mention money, cultivating fake meat? The same reason some people believe that we may have to resort to 3D printed food - To feed the world's burgeoning population.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the demand for meat will double within the next 40 years. Given that almost 70% of agricultural land is already being used for livestock production, there is very little room for expansion, without edging out fruits and vegetables completely. Then there is the issue of the large amount of methane generated by bovines - A gas that has been proven to contribute directly to climate change.
Mark Post and many other experts believe that the only way to be able to meet this demand and help reduce the environmental impact, is by producing lab grown meat, an idea that Google founder Sergey Brin certainly seems on board with, given that he is one that forked out the $325,000 USD!
So what did the world's most expensive burger taste like? Jon Schonwald thought it had a bland neutral flavor with the same texture as beef. Hanni Rutzler seemed to agree with the assessment and added that she had expected it to be much softer and would have preferred it with some additional salt and pepper. Neither of them was willing to declare it just good or bad, which 'lab farmer' Mark Post viewed as positive given that the taste can only get better from here.
The only bad news for those that are yearning for this fake beef patty is that while the scientist believes he can get the cost down to where everybody can afford to eat his creation, he does caution that it will take at least another decade to get it ready for large scale production.