The launch of lab-grown ‘meat’ in London on 5 August 5 was brilliantly done. One ‘burger’, coloured by beetroot, doused with breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron. Questions arise.
Is it meat? This will surely test trades description. Meat is usually defined as coming from an animal with flesh and blood. This comes from antibiotic sources, has no fat and is grown on serum from the blood of unborn cows gathered from slaughterhouses. It’s processed and stretched.
Will it gain policymaker approval? True, they’re worried about a coming protein gap. The question is: where to get those proteins? Plants or animals? Animals are resource-expensive. So are factories.
It may be news but is it new? The first lab meat - from goldfish! - was cultured a decade ago.
” A food may work technically but not pass the market reality test”
Does this resolve two centuries of animal welfare concerns about meat production? Some welfarists welcomed it. But others suspect this won’t stop conventional meat proliferation. The burger, note, indirectly used slaughtered animals.
Why was it developed in the first place? It’s technically sophisticated but this one burger cost a reputed £250,000. OK, it was a one-off, and it helps to have a billionaire backer, but will this line really take off?
What about health? The lack of fat in this meat might be appealing but why produce more meat in the first place? The case for reducing Western levels of meat consumption is overwhelming. The lab-burger technology also relies on antibiotics as a growth medium. It might be wrong to institutionalise mass antibiotic use when antimicrobial resistance is a headache already.
Who will buy and sell it? A food may work technically but not pass the market reality test. Lab meat is not set for haute cuisine and, like many start-ups, is likely to be pricey. There are already many fillers for mass, processed foods: Quorn, tofu, cereals. Who will risk their reputation on selling this? Retailers and caterers are so far noticeably silent.
All in all, it would be wrong to dismiss lab meat as mere sci-fi or silly season entertainment. I remain sceptical, however. It’s a technology looking for a use, and it resolves neither a need nor a want.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London