November 1, 2013

Professor Mark Post and his stem-cell burger

photo: David Parry/PA Wire
Enjoy your meal: Mark Post believes the lab-cultured beef burger could help solve the coming food crisis and combat climate change
For some this Dutch scientist is the creator of "the Frankenburger".

Others believe that he has achieved a potential breakthrough in the fight against world hunger, environmental pollution and animal cruelty.

Certainly the research conducted by Professor Post on laboratory-grown meat is not for the squeamish. And food grown in a Petri dish from stem cells extracted from the muscle tissue of a dead cow doesn't sound particularly appetising.

Yet one must give the 56-year-old Chair of Physiology at Maastricht University full marks for marketing. The launch of his lab-meat burger at a press conference in London on August 5 was a huge PR coup and has caught the imagination of the media.

The cultured muscle tissue, coloured by beetroot and doused with breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron, was fried by Richard McGeown, head chef at Couch's Great House Restaurant in Cornwall, before an astonished audience.

The stem-cell burger was then tasted by nutritionist Hanni Rützler of the Future Food Studio and Josh Schonwald, the American food critic. The whole event has polarised international opinion ever since.

INTERVIEW

Professor Post, how do you react to being called the creator of the “Frankenburger” in the media?
The whole “Frankenburger” thing appeals to a fear that some people have regarding anything new and artificial, but it doesn’t seem to resonate with the public in general. In surveys in the Netherlands and the UK 70 per cent of people said that they would be willing to try it.

So I don’t feel uncomfortable with being the creator of the “Frankenburger”. Instead, I think journalists should be uncomfortable with the fact that the term doesn’t resonate with the public.

Have you been approached yet by any fast-food chains, big food producers or retailers?
Not yet, but one smaller company has indicated interest.

What for you will be the breakthrough moment? When Heston Blumenthal starts cooking your lab-cultured meat, when Tesco uses it for an own label product, or when you supply McDonald’s?
I think it’s still too early for any of those scenarios. My goal in the next two years is to improve our product until people are not able to distinguish it from the real thing in a blind tasting test.

Only then would it be time to start production on our own and to approach food suppliers, fast food chains, and retailers to see whether they are interested.

It cost around €250,000 to develop your first in vitro burger. Could your laboratory method ever have a cost advantage over mass meat production?
The first computer cost $2m in 1945 and had less calculating power than a cell phone today! But that’s an unfair analogy perhaps. Even with the non-optimised production system we have right now, however, we could get costs down to a fairly reasonable price just by scaling up.

By “fairly reasonable” you mean still too expensive?
Yes, but only compared with today’s extremely low meat prices. In view of the earth’s limited natural resources and increasing global consumer demand, prices will definitely have to increase as they are not remotely sustainable at current levels.

To what extent was your research motivated by the wish to reduce world hunger?
To a very large extent.

Why not make hamburgers out of soy, quorn, tofu or other substances?
The advantage is that we create meat and not a substitute. That's not an unimportant aspect considering a prediction by the World Health Organisation that the global population will continue to want to eat an increasing amount of meat.

But aren’t there more and more vegetarians and “flexitarians”?
That is certainly true for certain parts of the population in the West, but the global reality is that the growing number of middle-class consumers in China, India, Africa and South America are creating an increasing demand for meat.

Also, to be frank, I don’t think that one could reverse this trend by just informing the public that it’s not a good idea to eat more meat.

How then do you explain that the market shares of vegetarian meat products or meat look-alikes have gained over the last 30 to 40 years?
Some people claim that vegetable products are becoming indistinguishable from meat, but I doubt whether that’s the case yet. If at some stage vegetable products could reverse the trend towards eating meat, then, fine, I’m happy. But I don’t see that happening at the moment.

Do you believe that humans have an innate craving for meat?
I’m inclined to say yes, although I have no idea where it comes from. The biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, for example, seems to be convinced that eating meat is part and parcel of our being human.

Your stem-cell burgers use slaughtered meat. How would your method reduce the total sum of human cruelty to livestock?
It would make a big difference. Firstly, it would be theoretically possible to take stem cells from a live animal, and just one biopsy could make ten tons of meat, or more.

Alternatively, if you slaughtered just one animal and took all of its stem cells, you could feed a whole continent for half a year. In both cases it would reduce the required herds of livestock tremendously.

To what extent do you believe that lab-cultured meat could protect valuable natural resources in a sustainable way?
The need for far fewer cows would significantly reduce the use of arable land as well as the consumption of both energy and water. As cows emit a lot of methane into the atmosphere that harms the ozone layer, there would also be less of a burden on the environment.

But it’s still early days yet, and we have to show with our current methodology that we can make meat more efficiently than a cow. I’m reluctant about promising too much too quickly because there is still quite a path to follow.

One of the big criticisms against mass meat production is the amount of antibiotics used. Why have you also used them in your lab culture?
I agree that it is absolutely necessary to get rid of antibiotics, and I hate using them, but am obliged to do so. We still use a conventional cell culture, and it’s basically an open air system. So bugs can come in and out, and usually they come in and never go out!

There is no immune system in the cell culture, so the only way to prevent them by using antibiotics.

Will you be able to exclude antibiotics at some stage?
Yes, we can go to a completely closed, automated and sterile system where the risk of contamination is virtually zero. This would obviate the need for antibiotics.

There are also other tricks we can use. For instance, we could replace antibiotics by natural, very simple peptides that are anti-bacterial and to which no resistance can occur.

At the first public tasting in London this August, nutritionist Hanni Rützler of the futurefoodstudio and American food critic John Schonwald found that your burger lacked fat and seasoning. How near are you to creating a product with great flavour?
I should say 20 years! But we know what to do and reasonably well how to do it. So I believe that, if I have sufficient resources, it could be done within a reasonable amount of time, say, two to four years. But that’s only the taste and texture and getting it to be indistinguishable from meat.

How long will it take to scale up your production process and make it more efficient?
Again, that would depend on funding. With unlimited resources in terms of people and finance, then it could also be done in two to four years.

Could your science also be applied to chicken, lamb, pork and fish?
As far as we know, none of these pose any insuperable problems. We have already done mouse and pork; others have done chicken; and some Scandinavian scientists have worked on fish. In essence, it’s the same technology.

Food grown in a Petri dish from stem cells extracted from the muscle tissue of a dead cow doesn’t sound particularly appetising. How could it be marketed in a palatable way to consumers?
I may not be a marketer, but I’m also a human being! In fact, we have discussed how to overcome consumer reluctance quite a lot. In my mind, the reluctance of some to accept this new idea comes down in the end to fear.

Above all, consumers fear that larger companies will mess with our burgers by economising on materials or processing. So, at the end of the day, the fear is not related to technology, but to the implementation of the technology and to a lack of control over it.

How could consumers gain more control?
Theoretically, there will come a time when consumers could create their own burgers in the kitchen — almost in the same way as they make bread. They would then have control over the whole process. To be fair, though, I don’t see this happening on a large scale, but it could be done.

Where are the ethical limits to what you are doing?
Mostly, I see ethical opportunities and benefits from this. Of course, every technology can be abused, but any conceivable abuses that are ethically questionable would be illegal. Also, our system is hard to abuse because stem cells have a very limited capacity to become something else.

They can only become muscle and fat, that’s it. You cannot make a new cow or a person out of them, unless you genetically engineer them, which we don’t.

 
Related article in German: Interview by Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 44, 01.11.2013.


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