Could Lab Grown Meat Be on the Menu31 December 2012
In the context of the debate on battling to feed an increasing global population in a sustainable way, the consequences of current agricultural practices and conventional livestock production are being examined and alternatives sought. A report ppublished by Teagasc in Ireland examines Irish consumers’ reactions towards the concept of a novel meat production system, ‘in vitro’ meat, which is currently being put forward by some international scientists as a way of satisfying the population’s growing hunger for meat.
By 2050 the world’s population is projected to reach 9.1 billion, with signifi cant growth projected to take place in developing countries. Alongside this, urbanisation and income levels will continue to rise, which will result in an increased demand for food, particularly meat. Consequently, the FAO (2009) suggest that food production needs to increase by 70% and annual meat production needs to reach 470 million tonnes, up over 200 million tonnes on current levels (FAO, 2009). Based on such forecasts, global food production must become more sustainable, while concurrently facing obstacles including increased competition for natural resources, competition between food, feed and biofuel, and operating in a carbon-constrained economy. In light of such obstacles to increasing global food supply, some scientists are exploring and researching the possibility of growing meat in vitro in a laboratory. The technology involved is currently used mainly to grow cells for pharmaceutical applications. However, several international research groups have been experimenting over the past decade in the production of in vitro meat.
What is in Vitro Meat?
An in vitro meat production system (IMPS) would involve culturing muscle tissue from a donor animal in a liquid medium on a large scale. The technical challenges of growing tissue in vitro to resemble a meat-based product are many. Cells would be grown in a growth medium containing amino acids, glucose and a variety of growth factors (which may be provided by foetal bovine serum or plant extracts). Force would then be applied, causing the cells to fuse and form muscle fi bres. According to scientists, the utilisation of in vitro meat in ground, processed meats such as hamburgers and sausages is, at present, more technically feasible than its presentation in a form resembling traditional meat cuts (Datar and Betti, 2010).
The ‘Yuck Factor’
Aside from potential environmental benefi ts, those in favour argue that an IMPS would result in reduced waste, as unwanted skeletal tissue and offal would not be produced. In addition, ethical concerns with regard to animal welfare, disease and intensive rearing practises could be addressed. Proponents also argue that meat produced in vitro could be cultured in sterile, controllable conditions, potentially minimising the risk of foodborne illness (Thornton, 2010); however, this is open to debate. Furthermore, they say that its nutritional composition could be altered. Aside from the implications for conventional farming, the rural landscape and wider society, the commercial implementation of such a system would undoubtedly pose challenges given its perceived unnaturalness and what some have termed the ‘yuck factor’ for consumers. On the supply side, scientists recognise that the process would be expensive and resource intensive, with the scaling-up of production undoubtedly creating challenges. The question therefore arises, could such a system ever become a commercial reality?
From Petri Dish to Dinner Plate?
The development of an alternative meat production system in the tissue engineering of skeletal muscle remains hard to grasp and, indeed, somewhat unrealistic. However, the concept has courted some media coverage of late. Further evidence of its apparent nearness to reality is refl ected in the fact that in 2008 the animal rights body PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) announced a $1 million prize for the first commercially viable in vitro chicken product to be produced by June of this year. This deadline has now passed without success and the contest has been extended until January 2013. However, a team of tissue engineers at Maastricht University claim to be very close to unveiling an in vitro hamburger. IMPS is currently in the developmental stage, and while its commercial feasibility is not yet clear, it is gaining increasing media attention (Irish Independent, New York Times). Therefore, it is useful to gain insights into consumer acceptance of this evolving and potentially controversial technology at this early stage. Irish consumer insights and reactions towards in vitro meat were therefore examined in research undertaken by Teagasc and UCC as part of a wider research project examining consumer acceptance of a range of novel food technologies.
Will Consumers Swallow in Vitro Meat?
A qualitative research approach was taken, involving observations
of a one-to-one deliberative discourse (conversation) between
a meat scientist and consumers from different socio-economic
backgrounds. Given the abstract nature of the technology,
consumers were presented with pre-defined scenarios,
illustrating the benefits and risks (from an individual, societal and
environmental perspective) of a number of hypothetical in vitro
meat applications across animal types. These were futuristic in
nature and were set in the context of a rising world population
and increasing demand for food. The aim was to elicit consumers’
responses to information about in vitro meat products presented as
a viable alternative to potentially scarce, conventionally produced
meat products in the year 2050. The first hypothetical application
illustrated how in vitro meat could be used as an alternative to
conventionally produced minced meat (this could be cooked by
consumers or used as an ingredient by food processors). The
second outlined how more structured cuts of meat could in theory
be produced; e.g., in vitro produced substitutes for traditional beef
steak, chicken and fish fillets. Consumers also participated in preand
post-discourse interviews (n = 5; 15 observations in total).
Participants initially reacted negatively towards the concept of in vitro meat, perceiving it to be unnatural. Their overall evaluations of such products were based on trade-offs between perceived benefits and costs. One interesting aspect in terms of acceptance was the issue of perceived personal relevance versus societal relevance. Particular product characteristics and personal demands from food (e.g., taste and texture) appeared more important to individuals than the wider societal issues of the environment, greenhouse gas reduction and global food supply. The suggestion that the taste and texture of in vitro meat products might be sub-optimal presented a potential ‘tipping point’ in consumer acceptance. This was particularly evident when in vitro steak was discussed.
Participants generally felt that any sensory shortcomings arising with a minced product could be more easily overcome by using sauces in cooking, etc. However, they were receptive towards the possibility of producing tailor-made in vitro meat products for specific medical or dietary needs. Overall, consumers tended to be supportive of the technology on animal welfare grounds. That said, this was influenced by the type of meat (i.e., participants were more favourable towards in vitro chicken than beef). Indeed, most were willing to pay extra for an in vitro alternative to intensively reared chicken or farmed fish. Thereby indicating that consumers displayed a ‘hierarchy of approval’; such a hierarchy has also previously emerged regarding acceptance of different genetically modified food applications Hallman (2000).
Individual perspectives and values (e.g., attitudes towards nature and the environment) also framed participants’ overall attitudes. In particular, most questioned the potential impact of this technology on farming practices within Ireland and the rural landscape.
Farming for the Future
Within the broader sustainability debate the environmental impact of agriculture and conventional livestock production is currently the focus of much attention. Despite consumers recognising the potential advantages of an IMPS, the main barriers to acceptance identified in this research related to texture, quality and the perceived unnaturalness of the process. In general, specific product and individual characteristics and broader societal issues (particularly those relating to sustainability) arose as important factors influencing consumer receptivity towards in vitro meat. Consumers recognised the need for more sustainable animal production approaches but whether the production of in vitro meat is a viable alternative remains to be seen.
This research was funded by the Food Institutional Research Measure of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Ruth Hamill, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, to this research.
References and Further Reading
Datar, I. and Betti, M. (2010). ‘Possibilities for an In Vitro Meat
Production System.’ Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies 11:
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (2009). ‘How to Feed the World in 2050”’. Report from the High-Level Expert Forum, Rome, Italy, 12th-13th October 2009.
Hallman, W.K. (2000). ‘Consumer Concerns About Biotechnology: International Perspectives.’ Food Policy Institute Publication No. RR-0602-003.
Jason White (12/11/11). ‘Meat even vegetarians can eat’, Irish Independent available at www.independent.ie/world-news/meat-even-vegetarians-caneat- 2933076.html
‘Who’s afraid of fake meat?’ The New York Times (13/07/10). available at http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/whos-afraidof- fake-meat/
Thornton, P.K. (2010). ‘Livestock Production: Recent Trends, Future Prospects.’ Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, Biological Sciences 365: 2853-2867.