Lab-burger: syfy or food-revolution?

Only recently the first hamburger engineered from stem cell material was presented to journalists in London. The lab-burger, developed by Professor Mark Post et al. at Maastricht University (The Netherlands) was tasted and the expert-panel – which had to share one lab-burger costing around US$ 320.000 each - came to the conclusion that the product had the consistency and texture of a genuine hamburger given equal modes of preparation i.e the frying-pan; but, it lacked salt and spices.
I do believe that the hungry of this world – which are estimated to represent at least 1/6th of the world-population – would have no qualms about their lab-burger not being salty and spicy enough.
Of course it is still very early days. Nobody can safely predict whether making meat from stem cells is sustainable and economically viable; or if it needs to be interred in the mausoleum of brillant yet infeasible ideas.

Let’s assume the first. Which would be the consequences for our industry?
With meat being grown in industrial complexes, traditional and highly inefficient ways of meat production will (sharply?) decline. And as a result, so does the availability of animal by-products. While these are exactly the key building-blocks of our industry.
Furthermore, the engineered meat coming from the industrial complexes will provide zero by-products, because only the products which are seen to be fit for human consumption will be produced. After all, nobody in his right mind will think of using a high-end technology to produce a low-end product.

In the first stages of the development of the lab-burger bovine stem cells have been used.
Apparently 100,000 lab-burgers can be made out of one stem cell.
However, there doesn’t seem to be any proof that similar results can be expected from developments with porcine material. So the potential threat for our industry – but still a possible blessing for the hungry of this world – is maybe not universal. Other species will come more into play. Probably with a strong emphasis on fish/sea material.

In case the above scenario becomes reality (Professor Post predicts another 20-25 years of further development before having reached economic viability) our industry will have to deal with a structurally changing supply-chain for one of the key ingredients: animal by-products. Which leads to redefining pet food. Because we can not take a longer-term steady supply of traditional ingredients for granted anymore.
I think it is high time to ask ourselves “what if ………?” The answer to that question is vital and needs to be given more imminently than we now care to admit.

Marcel Blok
La Azohia, September 2013

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