A test-tube beef project that cost more than $330,000 to produce a burger patty might get a passing grade in European research labs, but Nebraskans have better horse sense than that, according to people who deal with steers and heifers for a living.
“I guess this is what happens when you have more money than sense,” said State Sen. Ken Schilz, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature's Agriculture Committee. “I don't think many Nebraskans are going to fall for this.”
Schilz was responding to a report from London on Monday that scientists at a Dutch university have successfully grown meat in a laboratory using stem cells harvested from real animals. The muscle cells were put in a nutrient-rich solution and grew into small strands of meat.
The seven-year effort has been underwritten with a grant from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who said he funded the project because of his concern for animal welfare.
The research team at the University of Maastricht, Bloomberg News reported, sees its test-tube meat one day serving as an alternative to raising livestock.
Monday, a 5-ounce hamburger from the test-tube meat was fried and served to two volunteers, an Austrian nutritionist and an American journalist. The product tasted kind of like beef, they said, but when it came to flavor, “the absence is the fat,” said the journalist, Josh Schonwald, who also said it tasted like “an animal-protein cake.”
In Nebraska, the No. 2 U.S. beef-producing state, people were equally unimpressed with attempts to improve on the blood, bone and muscle produced by breeding cattle — what one rancher called the ultimate sustainable resource.
“This sort of thing might fly in New York or larger cities, but not here,” said Mark Jagels, a Davenport, Neb., rancher who is the incoming president of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
It will take as long as 20 years for the lab effort to produce meat with commercial prospects, the Associated Press reported, so it's a long way from restaurant tables. But if it were to make it there, one Omaha restaurateur said, taste and texture will be the key factors. If the lab-made beef didn't taste as good as the beef already used, said Jessica Joyce, co-owner of Block 16 at 16th and Farnam Streets, she might pass.
“I think in this day and age, to offer a stem cell burger at Block 16 in Omaha, Nebraska, would be pretty weird,” she said. “But in 20 years maybe it won't be weird.”
The research got underway in 2006, and the strands that produced Monday's burger took two years to grow big enough for two modest patties, AP reported. Only one of the patties was cooked Monday for the taste test. Chicken and pork are also candidates for the treatment.
Steven Jones, a professor at the University of Nebraska's Animal Sciences Department, said the topic is officially known as “in-vitro meat.” He said that he has engaged in such work using stem cells and that it has legitimate scientific research value.
“It is a very catchy headline, but when you start looking at the long-range prospects of it taking over meat production, I don't see it in my lifetime,” said Jones, who got his college undergraduate degree in 1978.
He also said people should not be blinded by the claims of science. In-vitro meat is not as easy as combining a few ingredients and just walking away while the soup simmers.
Antibiotics and serums and other additions are necessary, he said, because diseases can strike in the test tube as readily as they can in the pasture.
“That is the great thing about real animals,” Jones said. “They have a real immune system that protects them against real disease.”
Schilz, the senator who heads the Legislature's ag committee, said he doesn't think many Nebraskans see a need for lab meat.
“I don't think people here envision much of a reason to try and improve on what God and nature have already done a pretty good job on,” Schilz said.
World-Herald staff writer Sarah Baker Hansen contributed to this report.