They may not taste great yet, but scientists, with the help of Sergey Brin, are ready to change that
It has been one year since I took part in one of the most surreal and expensive taste tests in human history. No, I didn’t eat a black Périgord truffle seasoned with gold or a bowl of beluga caviar. Last August in London, with 200 journalists and several hulking cameras staring at me, I was one of the two people to taste the so-called Frankenburger: the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, a five-ounce patty grown from cow stem cells that took a Dutch scientist four years of research and $332,000 to create.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been asked The Question dozens of times, and each time I have given variations of the same underwhelming answer (it was ok; needs more fat). But I have also tried to make it clear that I hoped the burger I tried was just a first draft—the beginning of the meat-culturing age.
But as time has passed and I get fewer opportunities to say “it was one small bite for man, one giant bite for mankind,” I’ve started to wonder: Did that London event mean anything? Will it be just another weird moment in stunt-eating history? Or was it really The Beginning of the Cultured Meat Age?
The most exciting news I heard last summer was not that a cultured beef burger was actually, finally, being made—nor that I would be the guinea pig flown to London to try it. The news that got me most excited was that the mystery man bankrolling the burger was the co-founder of Google with an estimated net worth of $30.6 billion and a history of making sci-fi a reality. As soon as I heard the name Sergey Brin, I instantly thought: cultured beef could really happen.
But wait. Although Brin has nearly limitless resources, he also has limitless, omnivorous interests—everything from driverless cars to adventure space travel to asteroid mining projects. Brin didn’t attend last year’s burger tasting and hasn’t made any public comment on cultured meat for the past year. I wondered whether this was a one-burger-and-done project for him?
Not the case, said Dr. Mark Post, the Dutch scientist who created the cultured beef burger.
“He’s as determined as we are to make this happen,” Post told me, adding that he’ll be traveling to California later this month and firming up a commitment for additional funding with Brin’s foundation.
While Post declined to reveal the specific dollar amount, he said that Brin’s second round of support will increase the size of his team from five to 20. In addition to tissue engineers and food scientists, the larger team will have experts on consumer preferences and on how to get the burger approved by food regulators.
With Brin’s funding, Post said that the 2.0 version of the lab burger will have several major improvements:
More fat. My biggest complaint was that that even fried in oil and butter, by a Gordon Ramsay-trained chef, the cultured beef burger tasted about as dry as a turkey burger. The first cultured beef burger had 20,000 muscle fibers but zero fat cells. It’s fat that gives a burger its critical juiciness. And it’s fat, some believe, that drives our meat cravings. During the next year, Post’s team will focus on growing fat tissue, which is slower and more technically challenging than many assume.
More red meat. Most burger-eaters have never heard of myoglobin. But this protein, whose job is to store oxygen in muscle cells, is what makes red meat red. The first cultured beef burger lacked myoglobin, and if it wasn’t for some coloring additives—a mix of beet juice, saffron and caramel—the burger would have looked more like chicken: yellowish and white. By adding myoglobin, the next burger will not just look like red meat, it will also have a higher iron content.
No more serum derived from blood from unborn cows. By far the biggest issue Post will address in the next year is the growth factor problem, which is more or less a deal-maker or breaker for lab-grown meat. My burger was created from 20,000 strands of muscle tissue grown in fetal bovine serum. It’s not just that FBS, which is collected from unborn cows at slaughterhouses, is inconsistent with the whole animal welfare spirit of cultured meat. It’s that FBS is ridiculously expensive. Some critics, such as synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, call the high cost of cell culture the fatal flaw of the idea. But Post believes otherwise. He said he’s experimenting with 30 vegetarian and yeast-based growth serums—broths of amino acids, salts and sugars that will mimic hormones and catalyze meat cell growth. He says two cultures are particularly promising.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but with Brin’s backing, the increased staff and growing signs of consumer interest in meat alternatives, Post has radically revised his timetable. When I first visited his lab in 2009, he scoffed at the idea that a cultured meat product would be available in 10 years. But now Post believes a commercially viable cultured meat product is achievable within seven years. He expects to finish his work in a year and a half—and then pass along his work to experts on “scaling up.”
This doesn’t mean we’ll have a cultured beef option at McDonald’s in seven years. Post warns that these first cultured beef patties (appearing in 2021, if his estimate is right) won’t be feed-the-world burgers, let alone cost-competitive with conventional meat. Post envisions cultured meat will begin as a high-end product for people who care deeply about the environment and how their meat is produced (think Prius drivers). If there’s consumer demand, production will increase and prices will fall quickly.
Another reason Post is increasingly optimistic about a commercial future for cultured meat is that his work is getting interest from a different audience. Whereas lab meat used to attract interest from science-minded journalists and connoisseurs of futuristic moonshot ideas, now Post is often giving talks to the food industry’s rank and file, from flavor companies to food additives suppliers. “They’re considering it as a business idea.”
Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.