When meat is not murderWould you eat steak if it had been grown in a petri dish?
Ian Sample, science correspondentIt is the ultimate conundrum for vegetarians who think that meat is murder: a revolution in processed food that will see fresh meat grown from animal cells without a single cow, sheep or pig being killed.
Researchers have published details in a biotechnology journal describing a new technique which they hailed as the answer to the world's food shortage. Lumps of meat would be cultured in laboratory vats rather than carved from livestock reared on a farm.
Scientists have adapted the cutting-edge medical technique of tissue engineering, where individual cells are multiplied into whole tissues, and applied them to food production. "With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply," said Jason Matheny, an agricultural scientist at the University of Maryland.
According to researchers, meat grown in laboratories would be more environmentally friendly and could be tailored to be healthier than farm-reared meat by controlling its nutrient content and screening it for food-borne diseases.
Vegetarians might also be tempted because the cells needed to grow chunks of meat can be taken without harming the donor animal.
Experiments for Nasa, the US space agency, have already shown that morsels of edible fish can be grown in petri dishes, though no one has yet eaten the food.
Mr Matheny and his colleagues have taken the prospect of "cultured meat" a step further by working out how to produce it on an industrial scale. They envisage muscle cells growing on huge sheets that would be regularly stretched to exercise the cells as they grow. Once enough cells had grown, they would be scraped off and shaped into processed meat products such as chicken nuggets.
"If you didn't stretch them, you would be eating mush," said Mr Matheny.
The idea of doing away with traditional livestock and growing steaks from scratch dates back at least 70 years. In a horizon-scanning essay from 1932, Winston Churchill said: "Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
Several decades too late, Churchill's vision finally looks set to become a reality.
Lab-raised steaks will be off the menu for some time though. Scientists believe that while tissue engineering is advanced enough to grow bland, homogeneous meat, tasty and textured cuts will have to wait.
"Right now, it would be possible to produce something like spam at an incredibly high cost, but the know-how to grow something that has structure, such as a steak, is a long way off," said Mr Matheny.
Kerry Bennett, of the Vegetarian Society, said: "This is certainly an interesting development, and one that is bound to prompt many different responses from individual vegetarians - largely depending on why those individuals have chosen vegetarianism.
"The Vegetarian Society is concerned that while this has the potential to decrease the number of meat-producing animals in factory farms, there are still a number of question marks regarding the origins of the cells and the method of harvesting.
"It won't appeal to someone who gave up meat because they think it's morally wrong to eat flesh or someone who doesn't want to eat anything unnatural," Ms Bennett added.
"Personally I wouldn't want to, but I suppose if they're going to make chicken nuggets with it, then it's probably not going to taste much different."
R E S O U R C E S
The ALF FAQ
Meat and Cancer
Animal Rights FAQ
Facts on BSE (VIVA)
The Taste of Depravity
Animal Rights Resources
Low IQ Link to Eating Meat
The Post-Darwinian Transition
British Meat: the recipe for BSE
British Meat: the recipe for cancer
The Slaughter of Animals for Food
Meat: the recipe for prostate cancer
Red meat: the recipe for bowel cancer?
British Meat: the recipe for food poisoning
British Meat Education Cancer Information Service
British meat crisis: has BSE spread from cattle to sheep?