If Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University ever opens a burger bar, you might want to take a close look at the prices before you order. On Monday, at a press conference in London, a burger made by Post and his team was served that cost a cool €250,000 (about US$330,000). The reason? The beef that went into making it never saw a pasture and the people in the white coats who handed it to the chef weren't butchers, but bioengineers.

The purpose behind this incredibly expensive beefburger is to find new ways to increase meat production while reducing pressure on the environment and increasing animal welfare. According to the United Nations, there will be some nine billion people on Earth by the middle of this century. Globally, people are becoming more wealthy with a correspondingly greater appetite for meat and it’s projected that there will be a 130 percent increase in demand in East Asia and Pacific regions alone. If meat could be cultured and produced by industrial methods, it might reduce the environmental impact by reducing the amount of land being turned over to livestock.

“What we are trying today is important because I hope it will show cultured beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces,” says Post. “Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven’t altered them in any way. For it to succeed it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing.”

The event hosted by ITV London’s main anchor, Nina Hossain saw the cultured burger prepared by Richard McGeown, the chef at Couch's Great House Restaurant in Polperro, Cornwall. Tasters included Josh Schonwald, Chicago-based author of Taste of Tomorrow, and Austrian food researcher Hanni Rützler. The burger was pan fried and presented on a bun with lettuce and tomato.

"The burger had a very bland, neutral flavor,” says Schonwald. “The thing that made it most similar to real beef was the texture. When I bit into it, I was impressed with the bite and how it had a kind of density that was familiar."

The idea of growing meat in a laboratory goes back to at least the 1920s and Post’s technique is based on the work of Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, who developed a method of culturing meat based on stem cells. Unfortunately, stem cells only reproduce a finite number of times, so Post modified the technique by using myosatellite cells. These are cells that have already specialized enough to only produce muscle cells and aren't limited in how many times they reproduce.

The burger’s journey to the table is about as far from free range as one can imagine. Tissue samples were taken from cows on an organic farm, with the team claiming one sample could create up to 20,000 tons of beef. However, making the first burger was very labor intensive for far less return.

The muscle tissue was separated from the fat tissue and then separated into single cells. These myosatellite cells were then cultivated in a nutrient solution. As they multiplied, the cells naturally merged to form into strands called myotubes about 0.3 mm long, These myotubes were placed in a ring about a hub of gel in a Petri dish where the cells contracted as muscle cells are wont to do, and the tubes closed around the gel plug where they grew. Over time, these were collected until the scientists collected the 20,000 stands needed to make a 140 g (5 oz) burger.

At this point, the “burger” wasn't much to look at. Meat is actually a very complex structure made up of several different tissues, fed by blood and exercised as the animal moves around. The cultured beef was just muscle tissue and lacked the color provided naturally by hemoglobin, the texture provided by the different tissues and the flavors given to natural meat by various trace chemicals. To give it some of this back, the cultured beef, which looks more like flabby suet in its native state, was mixed with salt, egg powder, bread crumbs, red beet juice, caramel, and saffron. The end product looked like pre-seasoned ground beef that was very finely textured without a hint of fat or sinew.

According to Post, it may take ten years before cultured meat becomes a consumer product. Despite Monday’s very expensive dish, he says that even using today’s technology it would be possible to mass produce the cultured meat at around $70 per kilogram (2.2 lb) and that it will easily be possible to do better in the future.

The video below explains the rationale behind cultured beef.

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