Here comes the lab burger, at $300,000

Dutch scientist Mark J Post and his team have created a hamburger patty using stem cells from a cow to grow muscle fiber shaped like a donut


The burger costs $300,000 and comes without the fatty content that gives a burger its famous flavour and taste. Photo: Reuters
The burger costs $300,000 and comes without the fatty content that gives a burger its famous flavour and taste. Photo: Reuters

Mumbai: Dying for a beef burger? Help is at hand, but it’s neither cheap nor tasty.

Using stem cells from a cow to grow muscle fiber shaped like a donut, dutch scientist Mark J Post and his team have created what looks like a hamburger patty.

The catch: It costs $300,000 and comes without the fatty content that gives a burger its famous flavour and taste.

But Post, chair of the department of physiology and professor of vascular physiology and tissue engineering at Maastricht University, is working on it. He is redesigning models and cell sources to recreate the tasty fat content, and he’s confident that the price of the burger will fall someday, according to a 12 July presentation at ‘IFT15: Where Science Feeds Innovation’, hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in Chicago, US.

He’s confident too that early adopters of the technology will encourage others to consider it and perhaps even help overcome any concerns over its origin, natural or unnatural. “We eat livestock beef because we like it,” Post said in a 13 July statement. “Once you have alternatives, you can no longer do that. Eventually, the ethical dilemma will be for cultured beef versus livestock beef.”

“It’s realistic that we can do this,” said Post, adding, “We’re starting a company to do this. Initially, it’s going to be a very expensive product but given there’s a hamburger in one restaurant for $450, there’s a market for them.” He said he plans to start the company this year.

Post even offered it up for a taste test to celebrity chefs and tasters in London in 2013, who, to his relief, didn’t reject it outright. “They came up with the same analysis as me, ‘it’s OK, it’s much better than any other replacement we’ve seen but it’s not there yet’.”

Post is also working on his models with a stem cell bank, which is projecting production costs of his burger could come down from $300,000 to around $65 per kilo. “Steaks are more difficult to make,” Post said, “but we’re working on that as well.”

And even as Post and his team are working on his cultured hamburger, the use of 3D printers is promising to revolutionize the way food is manufactured within the next 10 to 20 years, impacting everything in the world of food, from feeding soldiers on the battlefield to how long it takes to get a meal from the computer to your table, according to other presentations at the symposium at IFT15.

The price of 3D printers has been steadily declining, from more than $500,000 in the 1980s to less than $1,000 today for a personal device, making them increasingly available to consumers and manufacturers. Although they are not widely used in food manufacturing yet, that availability is fueling research into how they can be used to customize food or speed delivery of food to consumers.

“No matter what field you are in, this technology will worm its way in,” said Hod Lipson, professor of engineering at Columbia University and co-author of the book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. “The technology is getting faster, cheaper and better by the minute. Food printing could be the killer app for 3D printing.”

3D-printing technology, which has been around for almost three decades, has found mainstream support in the last three years with its promise to revolutionize the way people manufacture goods and do business. Fabbers, or personal manufacturing machines—3D printers come under this category—now make not only jewellery and tooth brushes, but also football boots, racing-car parts, custom-designed cakes, guns, biological tissue, plane parts and even homes.

Addressing the conference by video, Lipson said 3D printing is a good fit for the food industry because it allows manufacturers to bring complexity and variety to consumers at a low cost.

The US military is just beginning to research similar uses for 3D food printing, but for use on the battlefield instead of in the kitchen, said Mary Scerra, food technologist at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Massachusetts.

In a 13 July statement, she added that by 2025 or 2030, the military envisions using 3D printing to customize meals for soldiers that taste good, are nutrient-dense, and could be tailored to a soldier’s particular needs.

According to Anshul Dubey, research and development senior manager at PepsiCo, 3D printing already is having an impact within the company, even though it is not yet being used to make food. For example, consumer focus groups were shown 3D-printed plastic prototypes of differently shaped and colored potato chips. He said using a prototype such as that, instead of just a picture, elicits a more accurate response from the focus group participants.

“Even though the future of food 3D printing looks far off, that doesn’t mean it’s not impacting the industry,” he said in a statement.

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