The Story

 A little over six years ago in London, three diners sat down at a restaurant to eat a burger one afternoon. The event was covered by the press, with media cameramen and journalists all surrounding the restaurant goers, ready to snap a picture or write an observation, as the diners took their first bite into a pan-fried hamburger. 

bun, bacon, cheese, beef
Krizza Santucci

The burger was not fancily dressed, nor was the burger prepared by some special, world-renowned chef; only the typical lettuce, tomato, and bun were to accompany its spot on an ordinary plate served by an ordinary chef. So, why all the commotion then, why so much media coverage for a burger that was, by no means, some transcendental, gastronomic experience?

The “meat” of the matter is actually in the ‘meat’ itself.

The meat of the diner’s hamburger did not come from a cow that had been slaughtered and butchered. It was also not a substitute like one of those plant-based vegetable burgers you see boxed and pre-packaged in the freezer section of a grocery store.

Instead, the ‘meat’ of the burger was produced in a laboratory by researcher Mark Post and his assisting team at Maastricht University – yes, that is correct. That sunny afternoon of August 5th, 2013 marked the first public demonstration and consumption of an edible in vitro meat product.

Cultured beef may first seem an attractive option to traditional meat alternatives, for it offers promising environmental, social, and economic implications. Once consumers get over their ‘yuck-factor’ gut reaction to the concept of meat that has been “grown” instead of “raised,” advocates believe the next challenge involves finding a way to make its production efficient, scalable, sustainable, and more palatable. But, before we begin adding ketchup to those stem-cell burgers, there are important ethical and social considerations that have not yet been acknowledge in lieu of the alleged panacea for modern meat production.

Reasons for Skepticism 

One fundamental barrier is the cost. While Post’s research could afford to splurge a budget of $335,000 on such a burger, I am assuming that not many people would be willing to deplete their bank accounts on their next meal, much less a burger that was “dry” and “bland.”

Even if technology were to improve the taste and lower the price, the potential replacement of farming as the traditional method of meat production brings the question of control and risk of contamination to the forefront.

Specifically, given our biomedical history of cell culture, as with the unfortunate case of Henrietta Lack’s whose stem cells went unrecognized and used without consent for many years, such a revolutionary proposal to revamp the food system warrants extreme caution.

For example, regarding the history of medicine, cell cultures serve as “body proxies” that are intended to mimic its response when conditions become too dangerous or poorly understood to inflict on the whole body. Similarly, this proxy status applies to meat cultures, and through the subsequent mixing of the two spheres, food and medicine, one cannot ignore the chance of cannibalism entering the market.

Although considered a universal taboo, cannibalism has been recognized as a feasible possibility by researchers, and while it might not seem all too settling on our stomachs, we all know there is someone out there who is just that type of person. Not to mention, many advocates defend that stem cell cultures are ethical because they don’t require killing, so if we are to apply this same argument to using human stem cells for meat production, where do we draw the line?

Secondly, proponents of harnessing meat from cellular technology often neglect that beef cultures are just as susceptible to contamination and infection and are readily colonized by bacteria, fungi, and many other types of microorganisms. Therefore, cultured beef does not yet evade the need for antibiotics, which when incorporated in human food, can cause antibiotic drug-resistant bacteria proliferation, infection by contamination of food, and even death in extreme circumstances.

Lastly, researchers have mistakenly assumed that vegetarians and vegans alike would favor this transition, for it is more “humane” in its elimination of the slaughterhouse and subsequent cruel killing mechanisms; they could not be more mistaken. The entire process of culturing the muscle cells from beef entails reducing and fragmenting the animal into nothing more than a cell. By ‘growing’ such meat, animals are taken apart, their parts have been taken further apart and then recombined into what is still essentially processed meat. Similarly, although slightly different from the industrial factory farm system, it still embodies the same manipulative, mechanized, enclosed, and dehumanizing characteristics. It is an animal, but the animal is being treated as nothing more than something to be consumed.

And so... 

Inarguably, the “steaks” are high in such an ethically charged decision, but perhaps, we should take a good look at the other options on the menu before ordering up what seems to be a great alternative.

I prefer my meals to have a more organic and natural method of preparation, anyways. And maybe, perhaps, just a slice of morality to finish it off.