Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cultured Meat

Alternet in July of 2006 posted a decidedly paranoid response to the development of "in vitro meat," meat cultured in laboratories free of animal suffering. The article demonstrates that progressive news media may still latch onto bioconservative political stances. Cultured meat would provide a dietary source of protein free of growth hormones, pathogens, and animal cruelty. Yet the Alternet article couldn’t get past the concept that labs are “yucky.”

Scientists growing meat in petri dishes say it's safer, healthier, more humane, and less polluting. But can we get past the 'yuck' factor?

"The concept is as simple as it is horrifying," reported Traci Hukill for Alternet. "It seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future, the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism."

The Hukill article reveals the ease with which cultured meat can become popularly associated with toxic chemicals or bacteria because these are things you typically find in laboratories. Proponents of alternative protein sources await a PR campaign to remind people that there are no more sanitary conditions than those found in lab settings. Typically the term “barbarism” isn’t associated with scientific experimentation, though it is an apt description of the present-day conditions that cultured meat is attempting to supplant.

The Alternet article’s appeal to rationality falls apart the moment you compare the minor "yuck-factor" associated with vat-grown animal protein to what goes on daily in the meat industry. Since competition to reduce the price of meat, eggs, and dairy products has driven the worldwide trend to replace small family farms with large warehouses, animals are typically confined in crowded cages or pens or in restrictive stalls. Nine billion farm animals are killed each year in the United States to produce meat. Under a new system implemented in 1998, the US Department of Agriculture no longer tracks the number of humane-slaughter violations its inspectors find each year.

"Privatization of meat inspection has meant a quiet death to the already meager enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act," writes Gail Eisnitz of the Humane Farming Association, a group that advocates better treatment of farm animals. "The USDA isn't simply relinquishing its humane-slaughter oversight to the meat industry, but is -- without the knowledge and consent of Congress -- abandoning this function altogether."

New Harvest img

New Harvest is a non-profit organization working on cultured meat.

Handling animals humanely in a factory-farm setting is proving increasingly untenable, making cultured meat a reasonable solution to the problem of the ethical treatment of animals. In vitro meat would allow better screening against salmonella, mad-cow disease (BSE), campylobacter, E. Coli, avian virus, or any number of other harmful foodborne pathogens showing up in grocer’s freezers and fast-food restaurants. According to New Harvest, contaminated meats help contribute to 76 million episodes of illness, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year. Together with animal feed production, meat production is responsible for the emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus, pesticide contamination of water, heavy metal contamination of soil, and acid rain from ammonia emissions. Because laboratory meat is grown under controlled conditions impossible to maintain in traditional animal farms, it is potentially safer, more nutritious and environmentally responsible than conventional meat.

It should be taken into account that in biomedical research growing mammalian cells has required a nutritious medium that includes fetal bovine serum. That is, serum taken from fetuses discovered inside cows after they’ve been butchered for meat at a slaughterhouse. Dutch researchers, mindful of the animal-friendly image cultured meat must maintain, have perfected a completely vegetarian growth medium, consisting of modified funigi, water, and glucose, making stem cells the only source of animal tissue in the process. Three Dutch Universities are contributing research toward developing meat from the stem cells of pigs. The universities of Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Amsterdam have transformed the cells into myoblasts. "Six years from now we might already have a product," says Dr. Henk Haagsman, Professor of Meat Sciences at the University of Utrecht. "No loin, yet, but indeed a kind of minced meat the catering industry can use in pizza's or sauces."

As stem cell research in the nascent field of regenerative medicine develops, it may become feasible to make adult cells undergo genetic reprogramming, making them indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells. At Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research to this end is already underway. Reprogramming somatic cells would allow for any tissue sample to be cloned, allowing you to grow your own tissue for consumption. In need of protein, hypothetically you could eat yourself.

far side cartoon

New Harvest and the scientists at Dutch Universities are proving that yielding meat without the need for animal suffering is a near-term objective. Here is a simple solution to the problem of animal suffering that demands our consideration. If you would think twice about having your cat or dog for lunch, obviously the prospect of cultured meat represents a logical ethical alternative to killing animals altogether.


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