Meat without Murder

Modern technology and a handful of motivated scientists may just make factory farms and slaughterhouses a thing of the past.
Meat without Murder

Would you eat a hamburger if it were made without killing a cow? Can you imagine a world where cruelty-free applies not just to shoes and shampoos but also to sausages and chicken nuggets?


Jason Matheny can. He’s not only a vegetarian, he’s a doctoral student and scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park, and he’s committed to changing the way meat gets to the dinner table. Last July, he and an international team of researchers announced a new method for “making” meat. Instead of slaughtering farm animals, they’re growing meat in the laboratory. “In theory, technology could produce the world’s entire supply of meat without ever killing a single animal,” says Matheny.


The technique involves a relatively painless process of removing muscle cells from a live animal through a thin needle, then letting the cells grow and divide in a sort of giant petri dish—a vat kept at the same temperature as the animal’s body and filled with glucose, amino acids and minerals. This nutritional soup is then poured onto large plastic sheets that are continually stretched to “exercise” the cells and keep them growing. After a few weeks, a millimeter-thick sheet of meat can be peeled off, rolled up and minced into hamburger.


“There are all sorts of ethical and health advantages to this technology,” Matheny says. “First, no animals have to be killed. In theory, we could collect cells from one of every type of animal now raised for food, rather than slaughtering 40 billion creatures each year.” Reducing the number of factory farm animals would also mean a tremendous reduction in land and water pollution caused by animal waste. According to the Department of Agriculture, food animals currently produce 1.6 billion tons of manure each year.


Vat-grown meat would also be safer and more healthful than today’s meat, Matheny says. “There are so many health problems associated with farmed meat. In addition to worrying about antibiotics, steroids and contamination, meat has a very high saturated fat content. But with tissue culture, we can reduce that or even replace it with a healthier fat,” he says. And people wouldn’t have to worry about mad cow disease or avian flu.


Will it sell?

Is lab-grown meat too weird or too sci-fi to ever become marketable? The Dutch don’t think so. They’ve invested nearly $5 million in research to cultivate pork from stem cells. The lead researcher, Henk Haagsman, PhD, a scientist at the University of Utrecht, believes they could have a ground meat product in as little as six years.


“Of course there are people who think this is Frankenstein food,” says Vladimir Mironov, MD, PhD, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Shared Tissue Engineering Laboratory in Charleston. “They see it as unnatural, but there is nothing unnatural here. We use animal cells and grow them in a cultured media. The only difference is that we don’t kill any animals.


Matheny takes it a step further. “We’ve already accepted plenty of bioengineered foods, such as wine, cheese, tofu and tempeh. None of them are found in nature.”


Also, contrary to what some might think, the process is completely different from cloning. “The kind of cell replication taking place is the same kind that occurs in our muscles when we exercise,” explains Matheny. “Cloning, on the other hand, involves reproducing an entire animal from a germ line cell, which is a highly artificial process.”


Even so, how realistic is this brave new world of murderless meat outside of The Netherlands? “If there is demand, it can be available and on the market in the next five to 10 years,” says Mironov. In fact, he sees a future where people will have countertop devices similar to breadmakers that could produce meat overnight. “It’s not a question of time, it’s a question of money. With a well-funded program, this could become a reality in the next decade,” he says. Cost is one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Scientists have yet to figure out how to get cells to proliferate inexpensively enough for lab-grown meat to be mass-produced and economical.


“Just like any new technology, it will be very, very expensive to produce at first,” says Mironov, “at least $5,000 per pound. But eventually, the price will go down dramatically—1,000 times. The Dutch wouldn’t be forging ahead if they didn’t believe that. Besides, they recognize that they don’t have enough land and they’re very concerned about the environment. They want to lead the way in this technology.”


What will vegetarians do?

Not surprisingly, animal rights activists and vegetarians support the idea of murderless meat. “This is one of the most exciting developments ever,” says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organization. “It removes the suffering of billions of animals and still gives people the opportunity to eat what they want, minus the cruelty.”


John Cunningham, consumer research manager of The Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore, says he’s been hearing similar thoughts. “While most vegetarians wouldn’t consider going back to eating meat no matter how it was produced, many of them think this is a good idea for nonvegetarians,” he says.


But is it?

“Meat is not a necessary or healthy food. We don’t need to eat it,” says Amy Lanou, PhD, senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC. “If we as a country don’t take the big steps in avoiding animal-based foods, we are not going to see healthier people or a decline in chronic diseases.”


There are other key things to consider, says Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food-safety advocacy group in Washington, DC, “including safety, nutrition, cost, taste and ultimately our culture and our connection to food. Even though we often eat highly processed foods—far removed from what’s grown in a field or produced on a farm—the bottom line will be whether people actually want to buy meat that’s grown in a vat. I don’t know if they will.”

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comments

Sounds very positive - Lord willing in time a feasible economic transition from slaughterhouse to lab grown can take place - am vegetarian and would look forward to trying a lab burger in the near future.

chris trent - 2014-03-20 13:12:07

This would be great if it ends up being the only hamburger meat available, because non vegetarians will most likely not change to eating this product just like they won't eat veggie burgers. It would be nice to make something that replaces bacon since that seems to be what non vegetarians cannot seem to give up(selfishly).

Heather - 2014-02-14 14:06:44

PLEASE DO THIS SOON!!! THERE IS DEMAND PLEEEEEEEEEEEEASE!!!

Gaby - 2013-02-28 02:10:47

"Mr.Lecter... I think that we could solve your problem..."

Doc - 2012-01-23 13:56:24

Ethically, I think it's great! If there were a god, I'd say it's a miracle. However,I do have to question whether humans should eat synthetic or any other type of meat.

RLO LOPEZ - 2010-09-10 01:01:56

@ Julia- They are not growing the whole animal. They just grow the muscle cells. By adding the normal growing conditions for normal cell replication, you can essentially grow muscle. But it's not an animal, and it has no nervous system whatsoever, so there is no suffering to be had.

Hannah - 2010-09-06 11:18:13

But they can only make hamburger... At only a mm thick, the meat they produce can't be much useful for anything else... I doubt it'll catch on unless they can produce other cuts of meat with the technology. Also, not being vegetarian, I'm too much of a foodie, as well as a chef, artificial food concerns me almost as much as the way we raise our food now. The way we've industrialized food production has really destroyed a lot of our great food heritage and there will be great culinary delights that neither our children nor our grandchildren will ever be able to enjoy. This is almost as concerning...

Josh - 2010-03-26 12:01:28

I hope it comes out soon,I would imediately switch to cultured meat upon first availability.

Gan001 - 2010-03-26 02:48:12

I am so pleased with this wonderful news. To end the suffering of so many animals, I "thank God" for this knowledge of these animals stem cells. Also, eliminating the hormones, antibiotics that are given to the animals that people ingest and get fat from and get sick from the fat content, which factory farms hurry the fattening process up to push fast for slaughter. I as a vegetarian would not go back to meat, but knowing that people I love who do eat meat would become healthier as a result of this wonderful discovery is great. But most of all, knowing there will be an end to factory farms which I loathe because of their cruelty, we all should rejoice!

Maryann - 2010-01-16 19:47:08

It's a good idea, but, I think after all this time of not eating meat, it would just feel weird to be eating something thats meat... but not.

Bee - 2009-11-09 15:45:38

This is an amazing idea, all the animals suffering is saddening..and now we actually have a chance to stop ALL OF IT!!!!!!!!! That`s tremendous! Good work

Ariel - 2009-10-26 21:56:09

Not sure the idea of sheet meet is appealing to me personally, but I must admit the ethical and environmental benefits are great. Advocates may be missing the point that an excess of meat is not healthy for anyone, so hopefully people wouldn't look at cruelty-free meat as justification to eat steak and bacon for every meal. I agree with Bob that if this idea were to take off, there would need to be a number of independent producers rather than a monopoly created by pharmaceutical companies or James Bond villains ? Monsanto is a good example. An industry that's properly regulated is also essential. Interesting to read the point of view of someone who has worked in the meat processing industry. Thanks, Bob!

Emily - 2009-07-14 08:35:46

weird..... but it could work

anonymous - 2009-05-24 04:05:41

So we can grow 'any kind' of meat, huh? I wonder if it will be ethical to grow 'long pork' for consumption? That is to say human flesh.

David Irving - 2008-09-10 12:56:50

Im a butcher in a meat processing plant...(well I was until last week) Im redundant now because the factory is closing its doors after 27 years of dispensing peace and tranquility to agricultural critters. At first this idea seems sick, almost deranged and mega creepy, but then Ive personally killed and bled hundreds of thousands of animals, there has to be a better way, and this idea could be it? The only problem I have is the thought that pharmaceutical corporations could see new markets open up if some kind of cancer causing agent were added to the growth process. Monsanto's roundup comes to mind....imagine how many trillions could be made over the coming decades if medical companies should see a rise in the demand for their pills and potions???.......Id hate to see the world become enslaved to ONE major meat supplier that has the health of ALL humans resting on their food quality assessors.

Bob - 2008-05-16 10:46:45