/ Food & Drink

Test tube to plate – let’s start the lab-grown burger debate

In mid-November the world’s first lab-grown burger is due to be eaten at a press conference. Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist at Cardiff University, weighs in on the debate of ‘in vitro’ meat.

Costing €250k, this burger has been grown from cow stem cells in Maastricht, the Netherlands, by Professor Mark Post and his team. This is a radical new way to make meat – fundamentally different to how it’s ever been done before – and one we need to start discussing so we can get on top of the social and ethical issues.

Meat grown from stem cells

I am a sociologist at Cardiff University, and I have interviewed most of the people in the world who are trying to make in vitro meat. I want to understand how an unusual new scientific field comes together, and inform a debate on if, why, and in what form we want this ‘in vitro’ meat.

But first a word of caution, don’t get too caught up in the immediacy of this. This remains a very early stage technology and we are nowhere near having stem cell grown burgers in our supermarkets. The fact it costs €250k to make just one burger gives you an indication of how far there is to go.

Yet, I believe it is essential that we still take this seriously, to get the voice of interest groups and consumers heard from these earliest stages of development, so that their opinions stand a chance of shaping what happens as the technology develops. There’s no point in leaving these discussions until later.

In favour of in vitro meat production

Let’s start with the arguments for. Supporters of in vitro meat list numerous possible benefits, most based upon showing deficiencies in current meat production systems.

They note the world’s population could increase to 9.5 billion by 2060 with increasing demand for meat, and that current meat production practices contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, land, energy and water use. In vitro meat could, they argue, prove a much more sustainable alternative.

In vitro meat could also be a healthier meat, free from animal disease and antibiotics. It could also be a morally superior product, as far less animals are killed in its production. Other benefits include the potential for making innovative new meat products, and providing a meat source for astronauts in space.

But it is sensible for us to question whether these goals are deliverable, as many social and technical barriers remain.

Do we need in vitro meat?

To address global climate change the meat would need to be produced in significant quantities; tonnes and tonnes every day. Hypothetical models of this process suggest production on this scale would have much less impact on the environment than existing processes. But this remains, as I say, a hypothetical model. And then consumers would need to want to eat these tonnes and tonnes of meat. It is not clear if we will. Especially as initially it would probably be more expensive than regular meats, if it ever makes it to market at all.

Currently most of the people engaged in ethical debates about in vitro meat support the technology. But we must remember ethical issues do not just ‘exist’. They are articulated and argued for by groups working from different perspectives and backgrounds.

Those most engaged at the moment are a subsection of bioethicists and animal rights groups. Both are important groups, but other voices are currently missing. Prof Post’s November burger is likely to provoke more people into expressing their opinion, which means it’s time for us to start thinking about meat grown from stem cells. Do we need in vitro meat? Would you eat it?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dr Neil Stephens, ESRC Cesagen, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences – all opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of Which?


If this sounds horrible and unthinkable, what would be think of the idea of rearing and slaughtering animals for food if this had not gone on for centuries? We are naturally suspicious of completely new foods.

Many are now happily eating mould, although the manufacturers of Quorn conveniently forget to mention this on their packaging. If you did not know that, look up Fusarium venenatum, the mould (filamentous fungus) that is the main ingredient of Quorn.

I will give it a go Neil, but please don’t call the new product a burger. I associate the term ‘burger’ with the lowest quality meat, plus goodness knows whatever else.

A very interesting post! I’m a big foodie but am open to the idea of eating lab grown meat in the future. I think Wavechange makes a very valid point – it sounds an odd way of growing meat at the moment but then so is rearing and slaughtering animals if you’ve never seen it before. I have a few queries about the impact this will have however.

First of all, farmers and producers charge a premium for meat products that have roamed free on heather covered hillsides, drinking only natural spring water and receiving massages and music etc etc. If lab grown meat tastes exactly the same, where will the market for premium meat be then?

Perhaps a more disturbing possibility is that a two tier food production system evolves. The rich can afford to buy and eat “naturally” reared meat, whereas the poor are left with bland, tasteless but ultimately cheaper meat?

Also, on a more basic level, I imagine growing meat in a lab will produce meat that is really only suitable for products that combine meat products e.g. burgers, sausages etc. I can’t imagine them growing a beautiful sirloin steak, quality pork belly or lamb cutlets in a petri dish! Will lab grown meat see us lose a diverse range of cuts of meat? If the future is all bland tasting burgers and sausages then perhaps it won’t catch on at all!

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this Neil!

You make good point about food quality, Scott.

In the late 70s we had textured vegetable protein as a cheaper alternative to the sort of meat that goes into pies. It was disgusting, though at least it did not contain pieces of gristle and no animals were slaughtered to make it. It might have appealed to some vegetarians but meat eaters hated it.

The history of Quorn is a long and fascinating story. The failure of textured vegetable protein plus the costs of the fermentation and subsequent processing involved in making Quorn made it essential to produce a product for the higher end of the market. Even though the marketing was rather dishonest, the company has been very successful in producing a meat replacement that is acceptable to meat eaters.

Yes we need to think about quality and price, but maybe not too hard. Many choose to consume burgers and the like. Texture is another difference between cuts of meat. Getting Quorn to have a texture with a similarity to chicken was one of the challenges for the company.

par ailleurs says:
26 September 2012

It all sounds a bit iffy to me. It presumably has some ancient connection to animal cells so wouldn’t be acceptable to vegetarians. I disagree too with the statement that “the rich” pay extra for premium meat products. I’m not rich but I still buy free range and organic. The easy way to do this is to eat a lot less of it and enjoy it more.
As for Quorn, well if you like it fair enough but I always think it’s better to eat meat or not. Disguising something of vegetable or fungal origin as meat is pointless. There are plenty of wonderful veggie dishes from all over the world which make Quorn unnecessary in my book. TVP was truly awful though. I remember it well, but not fondly!

I’m fascinated by this idea – on the up side, it means that no animals should have to die in order for us to eat meat (I’ve run the idea past some vegetarian friends – most say they still wouldn’t eat it, but a couple have said they would eat meat if it could be produced with no pain/suffering for the animal). It also means that potentially we could avoid some of the environmental impact of eating farmed meat – I know that producing a ‘normal’ burger is incredibly resource-intensive, so if the in-vitro burgers of the future are more environmentally friendly, that’s good with me.

On the down-side, I find it incredibly hard to imagine what would happen to the numerous people who work in the farming industry – would they just lose their jobs? How would the country change if we had no more farming for meat? I just can’t get my head around what would happen, and I expect there’d be a lot of resistance to any significant change on this front.

I agree with wavechange on people’s attitudes, though – even if there were initial resistance, I expect people would get used to this method of food production, as we’ve got used to the things that have come before it.

I don’t think the farmers have much to worry about at the moment. The costs of producing artificial meat in this way are likely to be horrendous. I could be wrong and it would be interesting to find out more.

Nikki, farming has been in constant flux since the Romans left! (Or, to be more practical, since commercial farming began at the end of the Middle Ages.) Farmers will always produce what will sell, and in the UK this depends on climate, soil and demand (and maybe subsidy, too).

Over our lifetimes, the rural landscape has been steadily changing. If meat is to come from factories, the farms will produce vegetables and fruits, industrial crops and, of course, grains and roots for processing – they always have done, but the emphasis will change.

So I think that a slow decline in meat production will have a slow effect on the nature of fields and open land. Grasslands will decline in the lowlands to diary production levels and the uplands will continue in meat and wool production. We’ll be long gone before all this will make much difference, though!

As meat becomes more expensive I would eat less, but my gut reaction (no pun intended, but maybe apt) would be to stick to a real animal product, not manufactured. I do not even like the idea of reformed meat. Neither would I trust manufacturers of artificial meat products. Vegetable protein is a better alternative perhaps – meat animals do not convert it very efficiently so it is probably a better mass food? Incidentally, I seem to remember that many of us (in the wealthier nations) eat substantially more food than we need – 2 to 3 times is a figure I seem to remember – so perhaps we should also consider trying harder to reduce consumption.

Sionni says:
5 October 2012

For the vast majority of people the problem is the readily available supply of quick foods, which in human life-span terms is a very recent fact. We are, or our offspring are, trained to accept sedentary work and / or pleasures without any or minimum effort.
We should learn to mobilse constantly and just keep our mouths shut for most of the time.

Hmm… One of the biggest environmental scandals of the last half century (some say twice that) is the heavy advertising which has made us all in the West crave the meat of large animals. Over a century ago, it was the food of the very rich only, for the reasons already mentioned, but through relentless and clever advertising we’ve all become convinced that we’re entitled to eat the ‘rich man’s food’ – red meat. So has grown a huge and wasteful large-scale industry intent on supplying us with what they’ve made us want. You’ll have heard at least some of the regular calculations that if the human food which is used to fatten meat animals were eaten directly instead, there’d be a global food surplus!

I think that the real issue here is the same one that applies to artificial sweeteners – it’s the craving for meat (sugar) that’s the root of the problem; we don’t need yet another industrial solution. As with the debate over animal testing of cosmetics, I think that the issue for vegans will be solved in the end. Yet think what this new product will be: like Quorn, a protein supply with little fat and none of the specific texture that makes real muscle meats what they are – hence the idea of burgers as first try. If we all in the west cut our meat intake to a quarter, farmers can turn to supplying other needs (fuel?) and we can get our meat either from vats, or from animals reared on marginal land not fit for crop growing – land with poor soil, or a shape or relief unsuitable for crops, or a poor climate (but not desert margins).

Maybe the real answer is not for us to travel further down the ‘rich man’s food’ route of meat, fat, refined carbohydrates, salt and chemicals for every meal, but for us to go back to the healthy diets of our wise forebears: meals mostly of vegetables and complex whole starches, with occasional meat, cheese and sugar treats. Eating what people used to call ‘treat foods’ several times each day, with sugar snacks and drinks every half-hour in between leads to all the modern disorders that were rare a century ago, but now kill three-quarters of us, after a prolonged life in sickness rather than in good health. This is impossible, of course. Such a diet isn’t profitable for the giant food corporations which control such things.

I agree with that, though with the exception of meat, the rest is not really the rich man’s diet. Much of the junk is eaten by the less well off and the rich often eat better food. I’m not sure how we make the change in our eating habits or even get started. One thing’s for sure we don’t need different companies trying to make money out of our efforts to eat a better diet.

Incidentally, the first Quorn product was a savoury pie made for Sainsbury, launched in 1985. The idea was to sell Quorn as a premium product and the burgers came along later.

Thanks for that, wavechange. The ‘rich man’s food’ I was talking about is the traditional diet, not the modern one. A century and a half of advertising and manufactured food have tried to introduce things always reserved for the rich to ordinary people – profitably. It kicked off with cheap, adulterated tea in the late 18th century, rose to a high level in the mid-19th century when roller milling gave everyone white flour bread, and has steadily increased to today’s insane level. Now every supermarket has ‘staple meals’ for the poor, who can spend a pound for a cheap microwavable meal rather than cook themselves. And what they then eat is most unlike the food of the rich and middle classes of the past, despite the similar name! I had a good look in the seminal books about Victorian diet for the poor. They would eat ‘cottage pie’ – potato topping turnip, carrot and a little meat, in gravy. The meat was half fat, but the whole meal low fat – and wholesome. Today’s £1 ‘cottage pie’ isn’t quite the same!

I see what you mean David. Thanks.

Mind you, the traditional cakes and pastries lovingly made by mothers who did not have to go out to work were packed with sugar and fat. The difference, from memory, is that they were a treat and not something to eat every day or at every meal.

Key point, wavechange! Treats used to be just that – an occasional meal or snack that was out of the ordinary. For all of the last century, led by manufactured snacks like chocolate bars and by commercial puddings, treats have both joined almost every meal and been promoted as an in-between-meal snack – “Go on, you deserve to treat yourself!” say the ads. So now it’s commonplace for them to make up many people’s whole necessary calorie intake, with meals on top of that. No wonder that governments are scared silly about the long term health prospects of the majority!

David Ball says:
6 October 2012

The real answer is not to try and ‘invent’ new foods but to reduce the over population of the planet.

It’s plain to see that too many people chasing too few resources will eventually lead to starvation and no amount of food engineering will provide for that situation.

David, the solution you propose has been put forward regularly since the 18th century – look up Thomas Malthus. It’s never worked, for two reasons. First, food production technology has always kept in advance of population growth, despite this being theoretically ‘impossible’. Second, the making of babies is not controlled by governments, as China has found out through seriously attempting such control.

In a non-police state, individual families make the decision about how many kids to have. When the family’s secure from disasters and wants to take advantage of what wealth they have, kids use up a lot of it, so tend to be limited. The poor in poor countries are always on the edge of disaster, though, and for them a big family is the best security they have. So the solution is really to give the very poor their basic human right of security. Then they’ll CHOOSE a small family. This has been proven again and again in real situations, beginning with the British middle classes around the turn of the 19th century. The most recent large-scale case I know about is the population stabilization in the socialist Kerala State, India, after the poor were granted a small plot of free land if they wanted it.

In other words, make people feel secure, and they won’t want so many kids. No other solution has ever worked.

In this food debate from the WWF, it’s revealed that we have plenty of food to go around, however, it’s just not getting to everyone: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/sustainable-food-wwf-future-of-food-debate/

Chris says:
6 October 2012

My concern is that once the idea of lab-grown meat is accepted and has found a consumer group, there will be attempts to tinker with the DNA of the source material to introduce different textures and flavours. We don’t even know yet what damage GM vegetable material is doing to humans, leave alone the environment, though there are some scary correlations between gut problems and consumption of GM foods. If we now start targeting another food source (meat), we could find ourselves in a right old stew. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone’s health if we invested more in perma-culture programmes and let the soil and environment recover? This way, we’d all have access to tastier, healthier foods, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t please the owners/shareholders of the likes of Monsanto and the corn producers.

There is no indication that production of meat in this way involves GM food.

Wavechange, there is. Reading round the topic on the web, I’ve spotted several of the research scientists involved clearly suggesting ways in which a little gene tampering will improve the ‘artificial’ meat and make it more quickly available commercially. And it does give me cause for concern – not of wild runaway ‘web of life’ changes, but of unexpected human body side effects that can’t be foreseen and will only be discovered after trialling on millions (in poor countries?) I don’t trust the big food companies to be honest or moral about this; ethics aren’t profitable, and as long as suing is unlikely it won’t worry them.

I take your point, David, but there is no requirement in principle to use genetic manipulation when producing ‘meat’ using stem cells.

I am disappointed how poorly release of genetically manipulated organisms has been handled. The regulations are different in the US and the UK and it is clear that labelling is totally inadequate. This has been known for years and until something is done about this, I don’t believe that the food industry should be allowed to make use of other developments in biotechnology. One of the reasons that regulation has not been achieved is that it is difficult to detect the existence of GM material in food. There is no reason that a readily identifiable marker could not be incorporated.

Yes, I am wary, but economic manufacture of ‘meat’ using stem cells (rather than proof of concept on a worthwhile scale) is probably so far off that there is time to put safeguards in place.

When we introduce a new drug it undergoes extensive testing and I would hope that the same would apply to new foods. It is interesting that Quorn continues to attract criticism with regard to its safety, We need to remember that natural foods can cause allergies and some (e.g. peanuts) can cause death as a result of anaphylactic shock. I very much hope that any novel foods that are licensed are at least as safe as natural foods.

I do share your concerns, David, and I believe the public is treated appallingly in the quest for profit.

I completely agree, wavechange. So, Chris, I think that public pressure is what will make the difference here in the UK, as it has with GM crops. Nevertheless, the lax attitude (or having the truth hidden) has led to many other countries embracing GM and facing the mega-corporation stranglehold that dominates even governments. Concerns over safety tend to get swept aside or under the carpet when these people’s profits are threatened. So vigilance will be required, as it is with drugs. Maybe wavechange has it – put the same laws into place as already exist for new drugs. Of course, this extends a 2-year lead-in to market, as with Bayer’s new ‘Heroin’, the hero’s non-addictive painkiller in ?1876, into ten, with all the public pressure then to get a useful drug, like modern Thalidomide, onto the market quickly – but with total safety, of course!

Whilst appreciating the conversation on ,”meat ” ,surely there is a far bigger and more important debate to be had on food production, with additives ,to be had /required .
As a type 1 insulin dependent ,Diabetic , for 50years I am aware of several devious methods that manufacturers . employ to increase profits ,such as ,greatly increasing the salt quantity ,the sugar quantity ,increasing packaging but reducing weight of contents ,all with added costs .
This WILL happen with the meat products described we all know about water additives !

Keerev says:
7 October 2012

The UK has undergone repeated attempts over hundreds of years to starve us all to death. The last two serious attempts almost succeeded. The UK needs more healthy, nutritious food that is produced securely on the mainland. Each time we have tried to encourage this by Government action, the so-called Entrepreneurs have instantly stepped in to rack-up extortionate prices for crap. These “Uber Barrow-Boys” have long-developed techniques for “slimming” past our tiny, neglected enforcement systems. This is confused by successive Governments as the natural and healthy movements of our well-honed Capitalist Markets. Mean while, in the real world, the “Plebs” are left with an increasing gap between food needs and ability to meet them. With no current system of political help I fear the future as people search for some action that they can take to protect their families with no democratic means to achieve this. Is there ONE LAST HONEST CAPITALIST who can take the principal of “lab-grown meat” and safely and cheaply use it to feed the population of this wonderful country without seeing it as another Government scheme to let their rich friends trouser vast, unearned fortunes to spend abroad?

My concern is the effect/impact on our digestive systems. Who yet knows what all the man made plastics and chemicals that we have and use every day in our homes has on our health and so, to go to man made meat? I’m not convinced…..

Nikki says:
8 October 2012

Control, and control again. Is’nt all about profit, how to make more in the long run, at this rate we will become lounge lizards to the establishments, in their glorified palaces, plug in baby and zone out…….

ChrisM says:
8 October 2012

So many times there have been examples of a new product that we use, eat or take as a food additive that eventually turn out to have downsides to the environement because of production processes or, are not as good for use as puported in the advertising i.e. It causes harm or as in the case of artificial vitamin/mineral tablets, the complex way in which the naturally occuring vitamins/minerals are presented (vegatables, fruit,nuts etc) to our digestive systems in a beneficial way is not replicated by artificial substitutes.
I’m not knowledgeable in these matters, but I would need to be convinced that I would continue to get all the benefits of consumming high grade protiens and amino acids that I get from meat if I changed to consumming in-vitro meat also, there must be no environmental downside

It is early days but I expect that the synthetic meat would contain the same amino acids in the same ratio as in natural meat.

From an environmental point of view, meat production is a very poor way of producing food. Of course we should think about the environment but don’t assume that a new process is necessarily worse.

Apart from that, how much longer is our ‘civilised’ society going to carry on growing and killing animals for food?

Unless you have a poor diet or a health problem, you don’t need vitamin and mineral tablets or whatever else the supplement industry has to offer. The companies are just making money out of gullible people.

I am an out and out carnivore but I would happily convert to meat substitutes such as quorn if they asctually tasted anything like the real thing. If manufactured meat can be made to exactly simulate the real thing then I would regard that as a significant improvement.
The benefits, as I see it, are much reduced animal suffering, greatly decreased pressure on land resources for grazing, reduced greenhouse gases from animal digestion and the possibility of producing perfect cuts of meat. The Brazillian rainforest would be saved from McDonalds and the third world would regain much needed grain growing areas.
The down side would be ? I don’t know but I’m sure there would be one. Perhaps this technology would be grabbed for the exclusive use of global corporations which would be bad news for everybody. Or perhaps 20 or 30 years down the line some unexpected side effect would show up and many people would die or become disabled. That’s the chance you take.
I think that as long as this technology is controlled by socially responsible organisations, and I’m not sure who that would be, then it could be of great benefit, but if strict controls are not imposed then I foresee a complete disaster.

Mike White says:
10 October 2012

Whilst new food produced by research scientists in a laboratory may be fine, I am very concerned that it will be open to abuse once it goes into mass production. We have seen abuses of traditional foods when they have been processed.
I like to be able to look at food and know what I am eating. It is part of the enjoyment.
Far more effort should be put into reducing food wastage.
1. People shouls realise that just because a meat and vegetables for sale doesn’t have a glossy magazine picture appearance doesn’t mean it wont taste good and do you good.
2. Get rid of some stupid food and hygiene regulations that cause so much waste.
3. Teach people to prepare only enough food for the number of diners and so that at the end of the meal they are not trying to psychologically blackmail people into eating more or throwing good food into the bin.
4. Stop increasing the areas of land set aside purely for wildlife and use them for food production sensitive to the needs of wildlife. If more people went walking in the real countyside they would see there are already vast areas for wildlife to thrive in.

Food poisoning makes people seriously ill and can kill, so your comment is not very responsible, John. Look at the number of cases and bear in mind that milder cases of food poisoning are not reported.

With planning, food wastage can be avoided.

It’s a good comment about excessive zeal in enforcing hygiene regulations and causing food waste, Mike. You’re right, wavechange, but consider this – the regulations as interpreted by inspectors who can’t be argued with and have, in practice got free reign to invent their own ‘hedge round the law’:

(1) in practice, chefs can’t any longer prepare stocks except from fresh ingredients bought for the purpose. Inspectors in our area ‘frown on’ (force) chefs to ditch stripped chicken carcasses, trimmings and peelings instead or using them for stock. And stock, once made, must either be used the same day or elaborately preserved with expensive factory-standard equipment. No chill-freeze or chill-fridge for use a few days later. Surplus cooked vegetables and joints have to be dumped, too, whether they’ve been ‘on hold’ hot or cooled. It’s same-day-or-dump. So stocks are now bought in daily.

(2) Class II vegetables are deemed unfit for consumption by many inspectors; ie, they look wonky or uneven, or have flaws, and this makes them dangerous, presumably. Chefs are considered to be risking the public by not buying the most expensive stock.

(3) Some inspectors enforce ‘best by’ as if it were ‘use by’ in commercial kitchens. Now, I know the difference, and so should the inspectors, but some seem to be like ignorant householders in regarding a manufacturer’s taste warning as a hygiene issue. So canned goods must be within the ‘best by’ date and cheese bought to mature in a fridge must be thrown if the inspector sees a consumer label on it which recommends ‘eat next day’. So chefs dare not buy such foods in a supermarket.

These are only three of many misinterpretations of the rules. I think the inspectorate must always be looking over their shoulders at possible media slaughter when (not if) a food-poisoning epidemic breaks out and the inevitable fingers are pointed. Commercial kitchen good hygiene is vital, of course, but working on the premise that even 108C pressure cooking for 2 hours can’t be guaranteed to slaughter every bug, so no cooked food may be kept, is a nonsense.


Unlike you, I have no knowledge or involvement with hygiene regulations, so I cannot make any useful comment.

It does concern me that certain contributors to Which? Conversation regularly say that it is OK to eat food provided that it does not smell bad. If they want to play Russian roulette with their own health that is fine, but as someone with some knowledge of microbiology and the mechanisms of food poisoning I feel compelled to say something to refute potentially dangerous advice.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable to judge food by it’s smell, colour and condition – but only if you know what those ought to be in the first place. If you have little knowledge or ‘feeling’ for the food that you prepare for yourself then you probably should rely on the ‘use by’ dates (NOT the ‘best by’) but you still have to apply common sense whatever the label says. I regularly see food on supermarket shelves that is obviously unfit for consumption but you wouldn’t know from the label, only eyes and nose are required.
If you get food poisoning from food cooked, or served by someone else then it’s just bad luck.

Mr Chris Mitchell says:
11 October 2012

I’m retired…an active member of the R.A, live in a rural area…have relatives who still farm…( small tenant farmers with mixed farms )…I don’t think I have any objections to eating scientifically manufactured meat, probably do already in pies and pasties…However I love the countryside and would hate to walk where there were no cows, sheep,poultry…I dread the thought already that a 1000+ dairy cattle may be kept indoors permanently in the future…I suppose I see scientifically manufactured food as another step along the road to a disappearing countryside…I know a bit sentimental…but essentially how I feel.

Are there any vegetarians out there who would eat this?