On Monday afternoon at a West London press conference, reporters witnessed a world first: the eating of a pioneering laboratory-grown hamburger. The carefully orchestrated spectacle also reached a further audience worldwide, as this pricey mid-afternoon snack was streamed live onto thousands of PCs, whilst others joined in the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #culturedbeef. Media reporting on this event has been quick to point out the potential of this emerging technology to alleviate pressing food security and distribution problems, and to reduce the environmental impacts of meat production. The arrival of the new burger has also been celebrated by animal rights advocates, such as the philosopher Peter Singer and the activist group PETA, as opening up a new market of cruelty-free meet.
The event has raised challenging questions which have stimulated wide-ranging debates across the traditional media and new media. Are there any meaningful differences between this stem cell burger and ‘natural’ meat? How do we know that it is safe to eat? What stance should vegetarians take? Can a lab-based food source prove to be a sustainable alternative to other low carbon, low impact diets based on low meat intake and local or organic food? And of course, does it taste any good?
The press conference focused on demonstrating the safety of the new product, but also brought together a group of food writers and journalists to attest to the meat-like taste and texture of the burger. What was not under the microscope were some of the broader moral and economic questions, covering scales beyond the object of this solitary burger, spanning temporalities beyond the specific event, and concerning the whole of the production chain. In a 2009 paper, Peter Jackson and colleagues used the term ‘moral economy’ to describe how ethical and moral concerns were expressed across time and space, and in relation to the diverse practices and processes involved in the production of different food products. Whilst Jackson’s paper was concerned with the morals and markets of the supply chains of chicken and sugar, their framework also helps to shed light on the moral economy of this newest of products.
The answers to questions such as ‘how different is this new meat?’ and ‘is it suitable for vegetarians?’ depend not only on which ethical frameworks we use but also where we choose to look, through space and time. The in vitro burger is made up of muscle tissue, the substance which would also account for the majority of any normal beef burger that you could pick up in the local supermarket. The scientists have also been careful to reassure potential consumers that there have been no ‘unnatural’ chemicals added to the burger. In this sense then, perhaps there is no meaningful difference between the two kinds of beef. But the processes that went into making the new burger, do set it apart, and this is why it is possible to claim vast environmental benefits of in vitro meat. A small amount of muscle cells are harvested from a living cow and are then nurtured in the lab so that they grow and multiply. This process takes around 3 months, much shorter than the life of the average cow when it enters the slaughterhouse. The carefully controlled laboratory process also means that there is no fat in the meat to give it flavour, so this instead came from the use of ‘natural’ flavourings such as beet.
On the question of the response of vegetarians, the the texture and taste of the burger itself has been likened to the meat substitute quorn. When we broaden our gaze to the production processes as well, the burger has been welcomed as cruelty-free (and therefore implicitly vegetarian friendly) meat by many advocates as it requires the painless removal of muscle cells rather than the slaughter of a cow. However, when the micro-scale laboratory processes which go into the production of the meat are also brought into the frame the use of calf serum – a slaughterhouse product – to nurture the stem cells comes into view.
Another aspect of the moral economy of the new burger which has been relatively unexplored in the media coverage is its situation in broader economic and market structures. The making of the in vitro burger was bank-rolled by the much-criticised Google co-founder Sergey Brin, citing animal welfare concerns but also with interests in the market potential of this emerging product. In the liberalised and globalised modern food industry does this product bring into being new moral economies or will it simply be moulded by existing ones?
Peter Jackson, Neil Ward & Polly Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibility, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 12-24
The world’s first cruelty-free burger The Guardian, 5 August 2013
First hamburger made from lab-grown meat to be served at press-conference The Guardian, 5 August 2013
Google’s Sergey Brin bankrolled world’s first synthetic beef hamburger The Guardian, 5 August 2013
World’s first synthetic hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’ The Guardian, 5 August 2013
Synthetic meat: is it ‘natural’ food? The Guardian, 6 August 2013
Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa The Guardian, 6 August 2013
PETA: Lab meat to provide methadone for meat eaters ITV News, 5 August 2013
What is Cultured Beef? Maastricht University, accessed 5 August 2013
Test-Tube Burger: Lab-Cultured Meat Passes Taste Test (Sort of) Scientific American, 5 August 2013