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Michael Specter in the New Yorker (May 23) reports that scientists in the Netherlands have succeeded in creating test-tube (in vitro) beef hamburger meat, grown from cell culture of cow cells. .

The doctor who started this research and continues to lobby for it is a Dutch WWII prisoner of war named Willem van Eelen, now 87, who nearly died from starvation in a brutal Japanese POW camp in Indonesia. Returning home sensitized to suffering, he wondered, Why can't we grow meat outside of the body? "I like meat — I never became a vegetarian. But it is hard to justify the way animals are treated on this planet. Growing meat without inflicting pain seemed a natural solution."

NASA funded a 2001 experiment focused on producing fresh meat for space flights, starting with a cut-up goldfish that, cultured, produced more goldfish "meat," and PETA has offered a bounty to the first scientist to produce credible lab-grown chicken. Meanwhile, Dutch scientists kept plugging away, using techniques from stem-cell biology and tissue engineering, until they got it — in-vitro hamburger meat!

They're still a very long way from being able to produce a steak — but face it, hamburger meat (at least in the U.S.) is by far the most popular meat purchase for both home and restaurant use. And the lab-grown stuff can easily be doctored. It needs fats for umami, but these don't have to be cholesterol-raising fats, they can be "good fats" (i.e., omega-3 fatty acids like those in salmon) so that your lab-burger would actually be good for you.

The big problem now is cost and volume — the Dutch labs can still only produce a little at a time, at a high price, whereas the popularity of hamburger meat is based in large part on its cheapness — a concomittant of the brutality generally involved in raising and slaughtering it for fast-food chains and supermarket meat cases. So don't look for Soylent Cow in your supermarket meat case anytime soon, alas.

See next post for reactions to this development.

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