Lab-grown beef doesn’t taste great yet and it’s very expensive to produce. But with the support of major funders, such as a Google co-founder, scientists might change that soon.

Josh Schonwald | Author and journalist

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In London two years ago, 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. With 200 journalists and several hulking cameras staring at me, I was one of the two people chosen to taste the so-called Frankenburger: the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, a five-ounce patty grown from bovine stem cells that took a Dutch scientist four years of research and $332,000 to create.

Since the event, 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 as time passes and I get fewer opportunities to say “it was one small bite for man, one giant bite for mankind,” I wonder: Was this really the beginning of the Cultured Meat Age?

Will the Frankenburger devour the American beef industry?

Because of the costly research needed to make the cultured beef econom- ically viable, I had my doubts. But when I found out that the mystery man bankrolling the burger was Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google with an estimated net worth of $30.6 billion and a history of making sci-fi a reality, I instantly thought: Cultured beef could really happen on an industrial scale.

If Sergey Brin is right, cultured beef would have a devastating effect on the beef industry, especially in the Great Plains states. Almost half the nation’s 29.7 million beef cows are on ranches from Texas through North Dakota. Not surprisingly, there are over twice as many cattle than people in Wyoming and North Dakota, over three times as many in Nebraska and over four times as many in South Dakota.

High production costs and low beef prices precipitated a one-third decline in the number of cattle nationwide from the mid-1970s to last year. But increases in beef and milk prices in recent years finally resulted in a 2-percent increase in bovines by January 2015, and 60 percent of this occurred on the Great Plains. Last year, the beef and dairy industries generated $130.6 billion in cash receipts nationwide.

The Frankenburger is especially a threat (or boon, depending on one’s point of view) since ground beef constitutes 56 percent of the beef consumed in the U.S., and this could increase to 70 percent over the next 25 years according to a leading agricultural economist.

Of course, it’s a long way from one synthetic beef patty costing over $300K to tons of Frankenburger at $3 per pound. But Brin has nearly limitless resources. On the other hand, 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, emphasizing 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. Will future farmers be teams of scientists, engineers and lab technicians?

“Fifty years hence,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1932, “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.” Below are several examples of future food startups:

  • In an industrial area of Brooklyn, New York, Modern Meadow pioneered 3-D bioprinting and is now developing a range of cultured meat products “in collaboration with renowned chefs,” the website notes.
  • In Israel, the Modern Agriculture Foundation recently launched a worldwide initiative focusing on creating lab-grown chicken meat.
  • Near San Francisco, Impossible Foods recently created a plant-based burger that bleeds like real meat. The startup is developing what it terms “a new generation of meats and cheeses made entirely from plants.”
  • In San Francisco, vegan bioengineers are close to marketing synthetic milk made from genetically engineered yeast. It’s called Muufri—pronounced “moo-free.”
  • Also in San Francisco, Clara Foods is developing eggs without yolks—and chickens.

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 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 growing muscle.
  • More red meat. Most burger-eaters have never heard of myoglobin. But this protein, which stores 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 calves. By far the biggest issue Post will address in the next year is the growth factor problem, which is more or less a dealmaker or deal-breaker for lab-grown meat. My burger was created from 20,000 strands of muscle tissue grown in fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is collected from unborn calves at slaughterhouses. This is hardly consistent with the animal welfare spirit of cultured meat. More importantly, FBS is ridiculously expensive. Some critics, such as synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, call the high cost of cell culture the idea’s fatal flaw. 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 of these 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 six years. He expects to finish his work in a year and a half—and then pass along his product to experts on “scaling up.”

This doesn’t mean we’ll have a cultured beef option at McDonald’s in six 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 affluent environmentalists (think Lexus Hybrid or Tesla 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 often gives talks to the food industry’s rank and file, from flavor companies to food additives suppliers. “They’re considering it as a business idea.”

Where’s the Beef…Prices?

Over the past decade, average retail prices for ground beef have almost doubled from $2.19 to $4.16 per pound. Chief among price factors have been long-term droughts in cattle states such as Texas (which finally abated in May) and California. Drought forces ranchers to buy more hay, for example, the price of which has doubled. Beef cattle inventories are the lowest since the early 1950s and will take years to rebound fully, if ever. As prices for all cuts of beef increase and the economy remains weak, more consumers are buying ground beef. But this accounts for only 20 percent of revenue for producers and will pressure prices upward. Cultured beef might well find a receptive market when production costs become reasonable.