TO hard-core carnivores, the concept of "test-tube meat" doesn't sound very appetizing, but for a small group of consumers looking for meat alternatives, the unveiling last month of the world's first lab-grown hamburger was cause for celebration.
Grown in vitro from bovine stem cells at a cost of more than $332,000, the patty was cooked and tasted in front of a London, England, television audience to generate additional exposure — and perhaps investment — for the project. The patty, which was the result of a five-year experiment by a Dutch biologist, was created by melding 20,000 strands of lab-grown protein with salt, egg powder and other seasonings to resemble a typical hamburger.
According to Reuters, food tasters were reserved in their judgment of the product, with one declaring that it tasted "close to meat." Another noted the "absence of fat" in the faux-beef patty.
Transferring the idea of in vitro meat from the lab bench to the supermarket, however, is a daunting task. Given the significant cost of the prototype and the questionable size of the market for such a product, lab-grown beef may remain merely a novelty.
"It's a very good start," vascular biologist Mark Post of Maastricht University told reporters who gathered to taste his creation. "Current meat production is at its maximum. We need to come up with an alternative."
Regardless of the veracity of his claims regarding "peak meat," advocates for feeding a growing population question the wisdom of investing copious amounts of capital into another processed food product rather than investing in agricultural production in the developing world.
"The laboratory burger served up in London by scientists proposes patented, heavily processed food that has been developed at a phenomenal cost in high-tech laboratories and is shipped to the world's poorest people to keep them alive," editors of The Guardian's "Poverty Matters Blog" wrote. "The other (vision) proposes that agriculture reconnects itself with small farmers and once again becomes a way for countries to develop and to offer better lives for their populations."
Consumer tastes evolve
Post's statements and much of the hype surrounding the animal-free meat experiment suggest that the product is a way to feed the world's growing appetite for protein without feeding more animals.
Some observers see the product as simply another meat alternative. The market for such alternatives, however, is something of a mystery.
According to research from consumer intelligence firm Mintel, only 7% of U.S. consumers identify themselves as vegetarian. While 36% of consumers said they do use meat alternatives such as tofu, tempeh and seitan, fewer than half said they use such products in place of meat, and 16% said they use them alongside meat.
"These data suggest that participation in the alternative meat category stretches far beyond necessity and creates an opportunity for future growth based on products' ability to meet general consumer food interests, such as health, price, variety and convenience," said Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst at Mintel. "The bottom line is that vegetarians and vegans aren't the only people eating 'fake' meat; meat eaters are also exploring this newfound protein superpower."
For meat producers, consumer perception of the healthfulness of meat alternatives is a potential area of concern. According to the Mintel data, one-third of consumers said they use alternatives because they are "healthy," and 51% of users believe they are healthier than real meat.
Some 31% of users said they were trying to reduce meat consumption specifically, while another 31% said they enjoy the taste of meat alternatives.
"While meat alternatives have the potential to meet a range of consumer needs, targeted health positioning has the potential to attract the specific attention of consumers," Bloom said.
Mintel noted that vegan marketing claims on new food products in the meat alternative category surpassed vegetarian claims in 2011. The "no animal ingredients" claim saw the strongest growth — at 200% — of any such claim between 2008 and 2012.
However, the survey found that 67% of non-alternative users said they simply prefer real meat, 34% do not like the taste of meat alternatives and 20% don't like their texture.