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SCIENCE

No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this $1,000 Meatball

Just to prove that they are serious, they have just presented their first lab-grown meatball—a $1,000 meatball—to the public.

Alex Swerdloff

Photo via Flickr user b'jesus

Do you fancy yourself a conscientious carnivore? Would you rather not think about the fact that the meat you love to eat used to hang on the side of an animal's haunches? Do you cringe at the thought of the methane emitted by your dinner and his friends on the pastures of Iowa?

Well, your worries may soon be over. Memphis Meats, a start-up that specializes in "growing meat outside a live animal," says it is should have its "cultured-meat" products on the market in three to four years. And just to prove that they are serious, they have just presented their first lab-grown meatball—a $1,000 meatball—to the public. A $1,000 is a pretty high price to pay for a single meatball, but it pales in comparison to the cost of one pound of their cultured-meat—$18,000.

READ MORE: This Scientist Is Determined to Make Lab-Grown Burgers Affordable

We're talking about test-tube meat, grown from animal cells. First, Memphis Meats isolates cow cells that have the ability to regenerate. Then they feed those cells with oxygen, sugar, and minerals. In nine to 21 days, the developed cells—which have spent time in a bioreactor tank growing into skeletal muscle—are harvested.

No animals are killed in the process, although the company does use fetal bovine serum from unborn calves' blood to get the party started. The company says its process is much more environmentally friendly than growing and slaughtering beef the old-fashioned way. The test-tube meat is said to use up to 90 percent less greenhouse emissions, consumes fewer nutrients from the Earth, and doesn't require antibiotics or other additives that are used in traditional meat production.

We wanted to learn more, so we asked Memphis Meats CEO Dr. Uma Valeti, a former cardiologist , a few questions about his magic meatball and his plans for the future.

MUNCHIES: $18,000 is a steep price to pay for a pound of ground beef—especially when you compare it to the average American grocery store price of $4 per pound. How does Memphis Meats plan to circumvent the current cost of producing lab-grown meat?

Dr. Uma Valeti: It's a lab process right now—the first few iPhones cost millions of dollars, but as they moved from the lab to the factory, the price plummeted. Similarly, the price of cultured meat will drop quickly in the lab as the technology advances. And the price will fall off a cliff once we scale up to larger and larger bioreactors, until it's competitive with conventional meat. Remember, meat production right now has an array of inefficiencies that we eliminate—most of the caloric inputs are burned by the animals. There are farms, slaughterhouses, feed mills, and other aspects of production that are not involved in our production process. We envision the current farmers and meat industry embracing this and incorporating it into their production process. So getting the price down will take time, and there will be some fixed costs, but it won't be difficult.

READ MORE: How to Harvest Meat from a Pig That's Still Alive

How do you plan on dealing with any stigma currently surrounding lab-grown meat? You might find Sam Harris' Twitter poll interesting: 83 percent of respondents were happy to eat cultured meat, which shows that people are not, when they give it a bit of thought, happy with how meat is produced now. Notably, more than one quarter of those who said no [they weren't interested in eating cultured meat] declined because they're vegetarian.

Have you done anything to court chefs or other industry professionals to use cultured meat? We haven't, though we will definitely be sold in the restaurants owned by our co-founder, Will Clem [his family owns a chain of 43 barbecue restaurants based in Memphis], and we were pleased to see that the one restaurant contacted by the Wall Street Journal said that they would sell cultured meat. We're not worried about restaurants selling it—as noted, it almost sells itself.

Thanks for speaking with us, Dr. Valeti