COOKING doesn’t get much weirder than this, to borrow a well-known phrase from Masterchef.
The round, pink mass sizzling in the frying pan looked like any other burger, and probably one from the cheaper end of the market.
But this five ounce patty, costing the juicy sum of £250,000, was far from ordinary.
It was the first beef burger to be successfully grown from scratch in a laboratory from cow stem cells, and some believe it could usher in a food revolution.
Culinary history was made in London today as two food experts, one a writer and the other a nutritionist, tasted the “cultured meat” in front of an invited audience of 200 journalists and VIP guests.
Their verdict? It’s looks like beef, feels like beef but does not quite - yet - taste like beef.
The burger was cooked in a little sunflower oil and butter by a slightly nervous Richard McGeown, head chef at Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Polperro, Cornwall.
After browning for a few minutes it was served up with an accompaniment of lettuce, tomato and bread buns.
American food writer Josh Schonwald, author of the book The Taste of Tomorrow, said after chewing thoughtfully for some time: “The texture, the mouth feel, has a feel like meat.
“The absence is, I feel, the fat. There is a leanness to it. But the bite feels like a conventional hamburger.
“What is most conspicuous is definitely the flavour.”
Fellow guest, Austrian food scientist and author Hanni Rutzler, who was the first to try the burger, said: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft.
“There is a bite to it. There is quite some intense taste.
“It’s close to meat - it’s not that juicy but the consistency is perfect.”
Next to take a bite was Dutch scientist Professor Mark Post, who produced the burger in his laboratory at the University of Maastricht, from stem cells taken from two living cows.
“I think it’s a very good start,” he said.
“This was mostly to prove that we could do it. I’m very happy.”
The tasting event took place at London’s Riverside Studios in Hammersmith on a stage converted into a kitchen/diner.
Prof Post believes laboratory grown cultured meat could appear in supermarkets in 10 to 20 years time
It took 20,000 tiny strips of muscle tissue grown from stem cells to make the burger.
Other ingredients included salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, red beetroot juice and saffron.
More work has to be done before the artificial meat can compete with the real thing when it comes to taste, Prof Post admits.
“There is no fat in here yet,” said. “We’re working on that. It will take a couple of months. We all know some of the flavour comes from the fat and the juices come from the fat, but I think this is a good start.
“We are basically catering towards letting beef eaters eat beef in an environmentally ethical way. Let the vegetarians stay vegetarian.”
He also revealed the identity of the previously unnamed businessman who has financed the project, Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Muscle stem cells painlessly harvested from two cows raised on organic farms were used to make the cultured beef.
In a multi-step process, the cells are first cultivated in a nutrient broth and allowed to proliferate 30-fold. Next they are combined with elastic collagen and attached to Velcro “anchor points” in a culture dish.
Between the anchor points, the cells self-organise into chunks of muscle. Electrical stimulation is used to make the muscle strips contract and “bulk up” - the laboratory equivalent of working out in a gym.
Prof Post believes lab-grown meat could help solve the growing food crisis and combat climate change.
Experts predict that global demand for meat is likely to increase by more than two thirds over the next four decades.
Current livestock farming methods are highly inefficient because of the amount of land that has to be used to grow animal feed. Pigs and cows transform only 15% of vegetable proteins into edible animal protein.
“Right now we are using 70 per cent of all our agricultural capacity just to grow meat through livestock,” said the professor. “You can easily calculate that we need alternatives.”
He has the backing of animal welfare campaigners . A spokesman for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) said: “One day you will be able to eat meat with ethical impunity. In-vitro technology will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming.”
The ‘yuck’ factor
Compassion in World Farming chief executive Philip Lymbery said: “This burger could prevent the future suffering of millions of farm animals; stopping the pollution factory farming causes to our landscapes.
“It could have a positive impact on our health - potentially reducing levels of heart disease and obesity.
“The ‘yuck’ factor has been discussed – how to persuade people to eat it. Well, given that much of the general public has been eating factory farmed meat - the ultimate in ‘yuck factor’ - I can’t see where the problem lies.
“This could be a real game-changer; transforming the way meat is produced in ways which potentially come with great environmental, health and animal welfare benefits. Less cruelty, less environmental damage, and a future free of keeping farm animals in horrific conditions. “
Mr McGeown, who has held positions with top chefs including Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and Gordon Ramsay, appeared surprised and impressed as he prepared the most exclusive and expensive dish of his career.
Close up images showed him spooning fat over the browning patty on giant monitor screens.
“There’s a very subtle smell,” he said. “It’s literally cooking like any other burger I’ve cooked before.
“It’s held up incredibly well. We’ve got a fantastic colour; it looks incredibly appetising.”
Before the taste demonstration Prof Post was asked if he would feed lab-grown beef to his children.
He said: “I ate it myself a couple of times without any hesitation whatsoever. Now a couple of people are going to taste it and my kids are jealous. I’d be very comfortable for them to taste it.”
Mr Brin, whose identity as Prof Post’s main financial backer was kept a closely guarded secret until today, said: “There are basically three things that can happen going forward. One is that we all become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s really likely. The second is we ignore the issues and that leads to continued environmental harm, and the third option is we do something new.
“Sometimes when technology comes along, it has the capability to transform how we view the world. I like to look at technology opportunities. When technology seems like it is on the cusp of viability and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative for the world.”
Vegetarians not hot on lab-grown meat
A poll running on the Vegetarian Society’s website indicates that lab-grown meat would not be popular with the vast majority of its members.
Just under 80% of those taking part in the poll said they would not eat cultured meat, while 6.91% said they would.
Lynne Elliot, the society’s chief executive, said: “There is little doubt now that people need to reduce the amount of meat that they eat, for the sake of the environment if not human health or animal welfare, so many campaigners argue that any development which results in fewer animals being reared and slaughtered for food is a good thing. But there are still many unanswered questions. The biggest question for many vegetarians is why? Why go to this much trouble and expense to replace a foodstuff that we simply do not need?
“Wouldn’t it be simpler, cheaper and more sustainable to just stop eating meat altogether?”
She added that the closer lab-grown meat came to the real thing, the more suspicion it would be likely to generate in some consumers.
“Labelling would be absolutely key to developing trust, and the food industry already has trouble providing vegetarians with transparent information about the provenance of certain products,” she added.
Friends of the Earth food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said: “It’s really positive that people are talking about alternatives to meat.
“Realistically, consumers won’t be able to buy these burgers in shops anytime soon - but we can reduce our meat eating now which would be better for our health and we’d still have varied diets.
“Eating less meat and producing it less intensively will help to solve enormous challenges like climate change and feeding the world.”
A statement from the Food Standards Agency said: “As the competent authority for novel foods in the UK, the Food Standards Agency is closely following emerging technologies and developments concerning novel protein sources as food.
“In-vitro or cultured meat is not yet commercially viable, but the technology used to produce cultured meat could be advanced enough for trials to take place. Any novel food, or food produced using a novel production process, must undergo a stringent and independent safety assessment before it is placed on the market.
“Anyone seeking approval of an in-vitro meat product would have to provide a dossier of evidence to show that the product is safe, nutritionally equivalent to existing meat products and will not mislead the consumer. This would be evaluated under the EU regulation for novel foods, prior to a decision on authorisation. There have been no such applications to date.”