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The Beef Angle

Lab-Grown 'Beef': Coming Soon to a Grill Near You?

Lab-Grown 'Beef': Coming Soon to a Grill Near You?
A Dutch scientist plans to unveil a lab-grown "hamburger" in London later this month. What will it taste like? No one knows.

TEST-TUBE meat is making its culinary debut (sort of) later this month in the U.K., according to a report from CBC News. The politically-correct term for the “schmeat,” as it’s apparently called, is in-vitro meat, though for most of us, it’ll always be test-tube meat substitute.

According to the report, a hamburger patty made from this lab-grown product is supposed to be unveiled and grilled at an event in London, in hopes of attracting support and funding for the next phase in commercializing the product. Funding, in fact, may be the single biggest non-food obstacle to getting the product out of the lab and on to store shelves.

Instead of "from farm to fork," could meat eaters soon be thinking "from lab to fork?"

Mark Post, a physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, grew the meat for the upcoming burger unveiling in his lab. According to the CBC, the development of the 140-gram patty has taken 2 years and cost €250,000 ($338,000).

While the voices for those clamoring for some way to reduce meat consumption (or replace meat altogether) are among the loudest in the marketplace, the number of folks not currently eating meat is actually quite small. According to the Gallup Organization, only 5% of Americans would identify themselves as vegetarian, and only 2% say they are vegan.

Gallup’s figures from a July 2012 survey reveal that the percentage of the population ascribing to a vegetarian worldview hasn’t changed much since 1999, when the organization first started asking Americans about the issue. Furthermore, the data is fairly consistent with the results of a 2008 Harris Interactive study commissioned by Vegetarian Times that found 3.2% of Americans follow a vegetarian diet, and 10% said they followed a “vegetarian-inclined diet” (whatever that means), though they did not self-identify as a strict vegetarian.

So the question is, just how big is the market for “schmeat,” anyway? In other words, who’s going to eat this stuff?

Not hard-core foodies and culinary experts, one might assume. The CBC interviewed one such expert:

Michael Noble, head chef and owner of Calgary's Notable restaurant, has a different perception of in vitro meat.

"I don't get it and it scares the heck out me," said Noble, whose restaurant specializes in gourmet burgers and aged Alberta beef.

He's also skeptical about how lab-grown meat would taste.

"There's absolutely no way that you can recreate the flavour of what Mother Nature and the universe creates for us in the lab," he told The Current. "There's no way."

Post, the Dutch scientist behind the schmeat patty currently under development, admitted that there is no way to know at this point what the patty will taste like, nor even where the product’s taste comes from. Given the confluence of factors – aroma, mouth feel, tenderness, etc. – that determine an enjoyable eating experience, the quest to successfully replace animal-derived proteins with those developed in a lab seems far from a sure thing.

Given that Gallup has found no appreciable change in the size of the U.S. vegetarian population in nearly 15 years, perhaps there is a natural “plateau” in this country relative to the size of the vegetarian market. According to a random sampling of data compiled by the gnomes at Wikipedia (kids, don’t source Wikipedia – this is a do as I say, not do as I do kind of moment), India likely has the largest population of vegetarians in the world, with nearly one-third of the country’s inhabitants ascribing to a no-meat diet.

Given that India’s vegetarian population adopts their dietary philosophy for largely spiritual and religious reasons, the sheer size of the country’s vegetarian community isn’t that surprising. In Europe, Italy and German appear to be have the largest vegetarian population by percentage, with between 7-10% of the country’s inhabitants going meatless. For much of the developed world, 5% appears to be the ceiling, however.

While test-tube meat has been discussed for years, it appears that the London unveiling is a milestone of sorts. Even so, with the schmeat patty posing potentially more questions than answers, non-meat eaters may be stuck with tofu and veggie burgers for quite a while yet.

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