'Close to meat': Foodies underwhelmed by first synthetic beef burger to be eaten in public

The research has been funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin

Steve Connor
Monday 05 August 2013 18:58

He may have paid for the world’s most expensive beef burger to be created in a university laboratory, but Google co-founder Sergey Brin did not get the chance to taste the first synthetic meat to be cooked and eaten in public.

The honour of eating the 5-ounce patty of cultured meat, which had cost Mr Brin nearly £250,000 in sponsored research funding, went instead to two independent food writers whose verdict was somewhat underwhelming.

It tasted “close to meat”, but was not as juicy, and although it looked and cooked like the real thing, it felt too crunchy on the surface and lacked taste in the middle, they said yesterday after sampling the meat at a west London venue.

The cultured beef burger, made from 20,000 tiny strands of meat grown in a laboratory dish from a cow’s stem cells, was cooked in front of an invited audience and served to nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald.

“I was expecting the texture to be more soft, there’s really a bite to it….It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy but the consistency is perfect. I missed salt and pepper,” said Ms Rutzler.

“The surface of the meat was crunchy, but not typically crunchy. It was more like the surface of bread or cake,” she added.

The test-tube meat was made from myosatellite stem cells extracted from the shoulder muscles of two slaughtered beef cattle. These stem cells generate protein-rich muscle fibres, but not the fat cells that are an important part of the taste and texture of meat.

“The texture, the mouth feel, has a feel like meat. The absence is the feel of fat. There is a leanness to it. But the bite feels like a conventional hamburger,” said Mr Schonwald.

Scientists hope that the stem cell technology will one day provide an alternative supply of meat that neither degrades the environment nor causes any animal suffering – the stem cells could in theory be taken from the cow by harmless muscle biopsies.

The lab-grown meat burger is made from Cultured Beef

Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who had led the 5-year research effort funded by Mr Brin, accepted that the burger was still work in progress and that he needed to find a way of adding fatty tissue to the cultured beef to make it more palatable.

The exorbitant costs of the prototype burger will also have to be addressed. Professor Post hopes to improve the efficiency of growing the stem cells in a culture medium so that the first cultured beef products could be sold in supermarkets within 10 or 20 years.

“It’s going to take a while. This is just to show that we can do it. I think it’s a very good start,” Professor Post said.

Cultured beef would in theory have only a small fraction of the environmental footprint of real beef. It needs less energy, land and water and does not produce anywhere near the greenhouse gas emissions of cattle farming, Professor Post said.

“What we are trying today is important because I hope it will show cultured beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces. Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven’t altered them in any way,” he said.

“Potentially you can do this in your own kitchen, although you’d have to know what you wanted to eat in eight weeks’ time,” he joked.

“Eventually I think we’d be able to replicate all the cuts of an animal, but it will take some time. Taste is actually a very complex issue,” he added.

In a video message to the London demonstration, Mr Brin explained that he had bankrolled the experiment to make synthetic meat because of the pressing need to invent a transformative technology to meet the growing global demand for meat.

“Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view our world. I like to look at technology opportunities where the technology looks like it’s on the cusp of viability and if it succeeds there it can be really transformative for the rest of the world,” Mr Brin said.

“Some people think this is science fiction, it’s not real, it’s somewhere out there. I actually think that’s a good thing. If what you are doing is not seen by some people as science fiction then it is probably not transformative enough,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that global meat demand is going to increase by about two thirds within the next 40 years and that current production methods based in intensive animal farming are not sustainable.

However, Lyne Elliot of the Vegetarian Society questioned the rationale behind cultured beef: “Why go to this much trouble and expense to replace a foodstuff that we simply do not need? Wouldn't it be simpler, cheaper and more sustainable to just stop eating meat altogether?”

Outlandish ventures: Brin’s portfolio

With a personal wealth of $20bn, Sergey Brin isn’t afraid to take a punt on outlandish business ventures. As well as the first lab-grown burger, the Google co-founder has backed asteroid mining and driverless cars.

In 2008, Brin invested $4.5m in Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company, which is selling trips to the Moon for $100m (£65m). Last year, Brin joined the film director James Cameron by investing in Planetary Resources, a new company set up to exploit the precious metals contained in asteroids, seen as a potential alternative to the Earth’s depleted supply of natural resources.

Brin is an evangelist for driverless “robot cars”. He invested in Tesla Motors, developer of the Roadster, an electric vehicle with a range of 244 miles. Google has put its prototype self-driving cars through 300,000 miles of testing. Brin believes robot cars will be available to the public by 2017.

Philanthropic ventures play an important role in the Brin portfolio. He created Passerelle Investment Company, which buys property in Los Altos, a Silicon Valley town, and rents them at below-market rates. Brin also has an interest in a genetic testing start-up 23andMe, co-founded by his wife, Anne Wojcicki, which gives people data about their ancestry.

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