Filet of Petri Dish

Imagine a day when restaurants can boast that no animals were harmed in the making of their sirloin. The trick won’t be in soy-based Tofurkey. It will be in petri dishes.

According to a paper in the journal Tissue Engineering, the same kinds of clinical advancements that allow scientists to grow human tissue in the lab may soon allow them to grow entire sides of beef. Using this technology, just a few cells could help feed the world.

The general idea of in vitro meat production—that is, growing animal muscle cells outside live animals—has been around since at least the 1930s, but only recently has technology advanced to the point that scientists could start experimenting. In 2002, NASA created small amounts of fish tissue; one scientist engineered frog meat and actually ate some (tasted just like chicken).

But before factories start churning out consumer-ready chuck, cheaper and more efficient systems for generating mass quantities of meat need to be tested. The paper explores two methods for growing meat cells: one on small beads (for processed products), the other on thin membranes (to be layered into more steaklike pieces). Theoretically, the products would be virtual meat facsimiles, the former looking just like sausage or ground beef, the latter like a roast or filet. They would cook and go bad just like regular meat, too.

Cultured meat could be engineered to be lower in fat and cholesterol and disease free; its production could be more efficient and more easily protected from contamination—making it almost more natural than natural meat. That is probably why paper co-author Jason Matheny, a doctoral student in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland, has received almost no negative response to in vitro meat from slow-food advocates and other opponents of food-related technologies.

“There’s no genetic modification in cultured meat,” says Matheny. “Those who are opposed to GMOs would actually have reason to support this technology because in vitro meat has a lot of potential health and environmental benefits.

“There are a lot of problems associated with conventional meat production and consumption, and this could address a lot of them,” he says, referring to, among other things, indiscriminate use of antibiotics and growth-promoting drugs by factory farms, animal abuse, and the huge volumes of waste produced by these operations.

The cattle industry doesn’t seem too concerned. “I wouldn’t say it’s something we’re worried about,” says Bucky Gwartney, director of research and knowledge management for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. For more information on cultured meat, visit www.new-harvest.org.

Illustration by Polly Becker