Why meat may not be murder for vegetarians

According to US and British researchers, the technology already exists for processed meats like hamburgers and sausages, using cells taken from cow, chicken, pig, fish and other animals. The wide acceptance of meat substitutes such as "quorn", a cultured fungus, "shows that the time for cultured tissue is near", Brian Ford, a British biologist and the author of The Future of Food, told the Associated Press news agency.

Techniques for engineering muscle cells and other tissues were first developed for medical use. But some researchers are looking into growing edible muscle cells, according to Jason Matheny, a University of Maryland doctoral student and co-author of a paper on in-vitro meat techniques.

One possibility is growing muscle cells on large sheets or beads suspended in a growth medium. The sheet would have to be stretched, or the beads would have to be expandable, to stretch the cells and provide "exercise" for the cells to develop, he said. "If you didn't stretch them, you would be eating mush. It would be like pink-coloured Jello." Once the cells were large enough, they could be scraped off and packaged. If edible sheets and beads are used, the entire product could be eaten.

Science is still far from reproducing artificially an entire natural meat, such as a steak or a chicken breast. But "the technology is there to produce something like a processed meat, such as a chicken nugget," Mr Matheny said.

The problem with "growing" a steak, with its own intrinsic structure, is that blood vessels, fat and connective tissue would also have to be produced.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say they have taken a step towards solving that problem - thanks to work on creating replacement parts for human beings. The MIT team used a mix of cells to grow muscle tissue that had its own blood vessels. In this case, human tissue was implanted into mice and blood flowed into the engineered muscle.

Morris Benjaminson, a bio-engineer at Touro College, said fish muscle cells cultured at his laboratory for Nasa had passed a "sniff panel". Mr Benjaminson said his researchers cooked their laboratory-produced fish and "it looked and smelled like the fish you can buy in the supermarket". He added: "With a little bit of money and time we could produce probably something that resembles a fish fillet," Crab, shrimp or other shellfish also could be cultured.

But would consumers accept these new delicacies? Some researchers argue that artificial meats are products of biotechnology, ultimately little different from everyday foodstuffs like wine and cheese.

"You take something that's found in nature, and reproduce it in a controlled environment," Mr Matheny says.

America's powerful Food and Drug Administration would also surely have something to say on the subject. It has already barred from the market food products involving cloned animals until their safety has been thoroughly tested. Others point to the fate of genetically modified foods, disliked by the public in many countries. Without the right sort of promotional campaign, cultured meats could go the same way.

Jessica Levy, student, 20: 'I wouldn't eat this - it makes me feel ill just thinking about it'

By Sean Topham

A vegetarian for eight years, Jessica from East Finchley, London, is not keen on the idea of cultured tissue.

"I wouldn't eat it. It sounds unnatural. It makes me feel ill just thinking about it.

Even if I ate meat I wouldn't want to eat this. Eating something that started out as muscle cells that are then stretched into edible sheets doesn't sound very appealing. How are they going to ensure that it has all the necessary nutrients in it?

I've been vegetarian since I was 12 and I gave up meat because I'm concerned about animal welfare. I don't think it's right to kill animals for food. I understand the environmental benefits of producing meat in this way when you consider the volume of rainforest that is cleared for cattle ranching, but first I'd have to be convinced it was safe. Even then, I probably wouldn't eat it because however remote the connection is with animals, it's still there and I wouldn't be comfortable with it.

I don't buy the argument that vegetarians will choose to eat this believing it will make them healthier. There are plenty of natural ways to substitute meat in your diet such as pulses and tofu. I don't buy meat substitutes like Quorn, but I have eaten them. Given the choice I prefer a cheese omelette to a Quorn sausage. And I'd definitely prefer a cheese omelette to this cultured meat.

If it became a staple food and if it was deemed safe and people wanted to eat it then of course I wouldn't have a problem with that, but I think it unlikely that I would ever eat it. Is it reliable? That's the problem with genetically modified food. I imagine vegetarians who crave meat might be willing to try it. I think they'd be a bit suspicious.''

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