Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tissue-Cultured Meat. Yum!

Occasionally science provides a potential solution to a problem that is so ludicrous that it ends up being of very little practical value. On NPR the other day, they suggested that the inconveniences arising from a household with both vegetarians and carnivores could possibly be solved in the near future. I want to be quite clear in stating upfront that this isn't a pressing issue for most of society. Yes, it is a bit of a shame that M. and I can't share more meals together- but it's hardly cause for too much concern. Sometimes we find ourselves colliding in the kitchen, while we both try to make our separate meals. To date this has yet to cause a serious injury. We also do our grocery shopping separately. This eliminates a lot of potential bickering about selections.

So what has science come up with to address this 'crisis' in mismatched diners? Tissue-cultured meat! Even the sound of it is a bit grotesque. Yes, we are talking about lab-grown meat. Despite the obvious aesthetic problems suggested by such a concept, the idea (as NPR helpfully pointed out) has been around for awhile. Winston Churchill is notable for having said a lot of memorable things, yet he's not known for his gastronomic expertise. In 1932 he said, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." Apparently a man named Alexis Carrel had been keeping a piece of chicken heart tissue alive for twenty years by the time Winston became a food critic.

It's natural to wonder how meat is created without the beast itself. Evidently it is not as simple as taking a skin cell from an animal, and placing it within a solution of nutrients. It turns out that meat is a complex combination of different types of fat and muscle cells. At least one researcher is getting close- Vladmir Mironov, a biologist in South Carolina is trying to figure out a way to make his artificial squares of meat into a commercially-viable product. The problem is that something this texture-less and formless is a bit of a 'hard sell'. Items like SPAM and other types of 'canned meat' became fodder for comedians everywhere, and that stuff is actually purported to come from a living creature we would recognize.

Certainly the biggest proponents of "tissue-cultured" meat are the animal rights organizations that decry the consumption of animals under any conditions. Last month PETA offered one million dollars to anyone able to create and market "in-vitro" (test tube) chicken meat. The condition is that it must be made and sold to the public by 2012. Not only that, but PETA stipulates that it must be sold at a "competitive price" in at least ten states. Oh yeah... it also has to be indistinguishable in taste and texture from chicken flesh ("to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike"). What I'd like to know is who they are going to get to judge this stuff, let alone sell it. The vegetarians I know would be appalled at the idea.

In fact the greatest obstacle to this invention is that no one really wants it. Perhaps it's going to take drastic changes in our environment to make the concept of "tissue-cultured meat" more palatable. Maybe there are plenty of willing mouths in war-torn Africa. But here in America we still have a choice. Meat eaters are pretty conventional people- they are going to be innately suspicious of anything "weird" happening to their food. It may be cut into a square and placed on a 'fortified' bun, but it better be from a damn cow... and not a cow-like substance. And on the other side of the equation, animal lovers are still going to be reminded of the idea of 'sentient being'-flesh. They'll likely stick with their tofu.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Dagrims said...

Is your son going to be a vegetarian or omnivore, and who will buy his groceries?

3:58 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

We plan on feeding him whatever he is interested in (within reason). I would definitely like him to include meat as part of his diet, and M. has no problem with that. She will most likely be buying most of his groceries.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want it. I'm vegan, for ideological reasons, and I would be very happy to eat something that looks and tastes like meat, as long as no animal had to die or suffer for it. I think you should give meat substitutes a chance and try them first. -That is unless you W A N T animals to suffer and die for you to have your meal.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

anon,

I truly respect you for your position. As for myself, I simply don't have your level of compassion.

5:06 PM  

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