What if you could take the pig out of the bacon?
We’re getting there. Slowly, but maybe surely.
This week, the path toward animal-free meat grew slightly clearer in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The findings feed the notion that in several years you may feast on a real burger — not tofu or some portobello stand-in, but real flesh — made without livestock.
Animal rights groups speak giddily about the prospect. Environmentalists cheer on the developments, imagining a hot dog with a far smaller carbon footprint. The meat industry says, essentially, bring it on.
“Kudos … to these innovative scientists,” said Janet Riley, a vice president of the American Meat Institute. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”
She also said important factors — particularly taste and cost — mean the livestock business isn’t quaking in its boots. So Missouri, seventh in U.S. pork production, and Kansas, third in American beef output, should feel no imminent economic threat.
Indeed, scientists still labor just to grow meat artificially. They’ve yet to tinker with its flavors, smells and mouth feel. Any product brought to market will have to battle an intuitive yuck factor along with the sort of concerns some consumers already foster about genetically modified crops.
Researchers agree the first ground-meat versions to come to market in the next five or 10 years will cost more than ordinary prime cuts — marketed to people who refuse to eat anything with a face either out of concern for animal treatment or the environment.
Over time, they hope, a new meat industry might invent ways to manufacture muscle tissue that’s actually cheaper than raising animals. After all, livestock waste so many calories growing bones, organs, hooves and beaks.
Today, for instance, it takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. If you’re growing only muscle tissue, and maybe a little fat for flavor and moisture, a pound of raw material might net nearly a pound of meat. Someday.
“It’s probably going to be some years yet before cultured meat is available for consumers,” said Erin Kim, a spokeswoman for New Harvest. The research institute funds research into “cell agriculture” to make milk, meat, eggs, leather and such without animals. “More scientific advances are coming all the time.”
The article published this week by researchers, including one current and one former member of the University of Missouri faculty, showed two advances working with pig cells. Coupled with mounting scientific and production breakthroughs elsewhere, the techniques could ultimately bring Jetsons-style meat to market.
First, the scientists transformed adult tissue cells taken from livestock into a pluripotent state, meaning they can be tweaked to grow into muscle good for frying, grilling or baking. Seizing the destiny of pluripotent cells also provides starter material that could theoretically reproduce endlessly in a way adult cells used in past lab-grown-meat experiments could not.
Second, the researchers showed how to nurture the tissue growth without animal serum, the liquid that blood cells and platelets float in. Animal serum has been used in the manufacturing of other lab-grown meats. But it’s an impractical ingredient to harvest for commercial meat production. As a replacement, the scientists created a synthetic cocktail made of many of the same components found in serum but without having to draw them from a live animal.
Together, the findings add to the potential tools that might make meat without so much as a moo, oink or cluck.
“Ideally, we believe that our process can be much more efficient than (feed) consumption by cattle because we’re only producing the product that the consumer wants” — muscle, said Nicholas Genovese, the lead author of the paper.