Where’s the Beef? Reality Check on Test Tube Burger Baloney

Mark Post of Maastricht University UnVeiling Test Tube Burger

What is the deal with the crazy hullaballoo over the so-called stem cell test tube burger?

On the surface, this pseudo-burger sounds kinda cool in a geeky, comic book kind of way, but when I dug just a little deeper, it turns out I’m left asking: where’s the beef?

After the burger was mentioned briefly on late night monologues here in the US last week, there’s been a regular media test tube burger firestorm the last day or so.

Why?

A couple days ago the test tube burger had a media launch that might make Lady Gaga, who once wore a meat dress, give a tip of one of her crazy hats to Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, who is seen above literally unveiling the lab-grown burger on a staged TV cooking show of sorts.

The event launching the burger this week was more public relations stunt than anything else and was about as far removed from science as possible.

As a cell biologist that makes me question the science behind & safety of this burger. Update: with a hat tip to Bill Busa in the comments, the #1 safety rule in all labs is “no food in the lab!” For this reason, the test tube burger is very much a safety oxymoron. 

Did the scientists involved ask the appropriate governmental agencies that regulate food and lab safety for permission to let human beings eat his lab-produced burger? I am not sure but kinda doubt it and I bet they would have prohibited it.

Being concerned and curious, I politely emailed Dr. Post a few days ago to ask just a few simple questions focused on the science behind the burger, but got no reply.

I believe this burger media frenzy due essentially to the launch of an ad campaign is a bunch of baloney.

There are four common sense reasons to have serious doubts about the test tube burger.

  • First of all, the reasons for making this lab burger are highly questionable at best. Proponents of the test tube burger say it is an ethical advance because it could help animal welfare and provide sustainable food sources. I am very skeptical of those ideas. For example, to grow the cells to make the synthetic meat, you almost certainly need enormous volumes of fetal bovine serum, which is a blood serum isolated from fetal cows. That doesn’t seem to fit very well with the animal welfare angle, does it? Don’t want to use fetal bovine serum? The only alternative today is super duper expensive synthetic growth factors that would make the meat even  pricier and have issues of their own. For example, eating synthetic growth factor-containing meat could possibly increase cancer risk.
  • Second, the cell media, a nutrient rich broth used to get the stem and muscle cells to grow the synthetic meat, is probably healthier and far cheaper than the fake meat itself. Why not simply give people the growth media as an Ensure-like liquid food? You really think fake meat is going to be more appetizing?
  • Third, there is the tremendous price. That one burger these guys made cost more than $300,000. Let’s see, I can get a tasty burger at In-N-Out for about $3. That 100,000-fold difference in price seems like one giant cow patty-sized problem for the proponents of the stem cell burger to overcome.
  • Fourth, and most serious, there are some serious safety concerns. I wouldn’t exactly rush in to eat the lab-grown meat. In fact, I would highly recommend that no one eat it. Why? It could literally be quite dangerous even if cooked. All kinds of nasties are floating around in labs including toxic chemicals, viruses, bacteria, mycobacteria, synthetic DNA, other cells that could contaminate the cultures, not to mention chemicals from the plastic dishes, stuff in the fetal bovine serum and much much more that you don’t want in your body. Believe me.

Regarding that fourth point, it concerned me greatly to see Dr. Post say on TV that there are “no risks” from the test tube burger. As someone who has been growing cells in the lab for more than 2 decades, I strongly disagree with him on the safety issue.

Bottom line? Lab-growth cellular meat is not likely to become practical during our lifetimes. It’s one of those cool ideas cooked up by us geeky scientists, but I think it’s mostly a bunch of baloney. Finally, the mega-PR blitz surrounding the burger seems almost as “yuck” to me as the idea of eating a burger grown in a lab. Scientists need to interact with the media more and talk directly to the public, but this went way too far to the extreme.

18 thoughts on “Where’s the Beef? Reality Check on Test Tube Burger Baloney


  1. I share your views on this, but I would put two of your points a little differently:

    1. Anyone willing to eat this stuff should, logically, also be willing to swig down large volumes of spent cell culture medium. Any takers?

    2. The first and last rule of laboratory safety (despite what one sees every night on TV) is “No food in the lab!” This lab-grown ‘burger’ is thus an oxymoron, safety-wise.


    • Excellent points, Bill. I may have to add that “no food in the lab” point to the post with a hat tip to you!
      Thanks. I think you may have a “comment of the year” contender here!


    • Well, I guess wine could be called a “spent cell culture medium”. I really enjoy the occasional glass of a fine Australian shiraz.

      As for “stem cell burgers”, it sounds like an interesting idea to explore… in the same sense that humanity makes art and sends men to the moon (and waffles about going to Mars). Personally I’d be loath to eat the the smeat, although I would enjoy a trip to the moon…


  2. Pretty disappointed in the thin reasoning on a lot of these points. Point #3 in particular: are you really implying that it will always be a $300,000 burger? If a company spends millions of dollars on R&D for a drug to reduce the risk of heart attack, do you then claim the drug costs millions? No, because because the cost comes down as it is mass produced and technology is developed to make it more efficiently.

    And safety? You really think a laboratory designed for this purpose is *less* safe than meat that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations?

    Since you’re a smart guy, I’m going to take “no food in the lab” as a joke, rather than something put forward as a serious reason, though you and Bill almost write as if it actually is relevant to this discussion.


    • Thanks for the comment, Adam. I think the cost is likely to come down, but starting at $300,000 for one burger is a big problem. There are some technical aspects to make cellular food that are unlikely to get significantly cheaper over time. Biology is not like Moore’s law for computer costs. The $300,000 cost for the prototype also, to my knowledge, did not include very expensive costs related to regulatory compliance for the host of federal agencies that would have to approve such a product. Let’s be optimistic and say they can reduce cost 100-fold in 10 years that still leaves us with a $3,000 price tag for one burger.

      As to safety, I am frankly astonished that people were allowed to eat this burger. Did the scientist involved ask the relevant governmental agencies that regulate food and lab safety for permission to let human beings eat his lab-produced burger? I strongly doubt it and I bet they would have prohibited it. And, yes, after more than 2 decades in the lab growing cells myself, I believe as much as “natural” beef burgers have their safety issues that the lab-produced burger is dramatically less safe than the natural one.

      The “no food in the lab” point is no joke, but illustrates how the idea of growing food in a lab seems crazy for most of us researchers who know how important lab safety is.


  3. Definitely the reasons for making this are questionable. Personally I see it as a solution to a 21st century problem, a healthy diet doesn’t require us to eat meat everyday. Anyway, this is probably better for you than fed lot cattle.

    It’s great start to show it can be done, now it’s done can optimise manufacturing process, making it more cost effective. Human genome project cost millions of dollars and took years, now it can be done in 24 hours, for $99. Similar to Moore’s law. Also, serum free culture can overcome the need for FBS.
    Prof. Post also works on tissue vascular grafts, the work on growing significant tissue can be translated towards a clinical purpose. 4 x 10e10 cells of muscle tissue is a fair feat, can’t be knocked

    My main beef (pun intended) is that the media have made so much of this, yet relatively little fanfare for real advances in medicine


  4. How does lab-grown beef compare to lab-propagated and -differentiated stem cells for implantation in terms of safety, given that the beef is or is not cultured in FBS? Is your concern in the use of FBS that of more heat-resistant infectious agents, such as prions perhaps, more so than other more heat-sensitive agents? In the case were infectious agents might be carried with the lab-grown product, would heat from cooking mitigate the risk to an expectable level much like eating insufficiently cooked pork has potential for infecting those how eat it? And one last idea, can genetically modified foods, wether eaten raw or cooked, pose the same synthetic-DNA dangers that is mentioned point #4?

    Thank you for this post and your blog overall. I find it interesting.


  5. How does lab-grown beef compare to lab-propagated and -differentiated stem cells used for implantation, given that the beef is grown in FBS? The danger of being infected by lab-grown beef seems on par with the risk of cooking pork insufficiently. Here consumers mitigate the risk of infection to acceptable levels by properly cooking pork. It then follows that if the lab-grown beef was cultured in a food-grade environment and subsequently cooked prior to ingestion, what infectious agents might persist after heating? Could prions by a danger if FBS is used to culture beef?

    Let me know if these are sound considerations.

  6. Pingback: News and Blog Roundup 09/08/13 | Stu's Stem Cell Blog


  7. I worked on this project about 7 years ago. The idea behind it is sympathetic and originally was proposed by Winston Churchill. Also, a similar thing (with a bit less product) was done a number of years a go in Paris by an other group. The current publicity no more than a way to generate some money for the project. However, going through your comments there are a few things I want to put into perspective. Most of these things I also mentions in discussion in the LinkedIn Cell Therapy Industry group

    1: The FBS point: Back in my time we used 1% FBS to differentiate the cells, and the group was working on replacing FBS by either a synthetic or an algea based protein source. The only growth factor needed is FGF which can be obtained by adding <1% fibroblast to the culture or culture the strips of myocites in a transwell with fibroblast growing in the lower well. The project is designed such that when commercially viable, the burden on animals and environment would be minimal.

    2: It sure is, like many other things. However, there are very good alternatives for meat on the market already based on Soy or other plant extracts. Nonetheless, most people still prefer meat. Human consumption often is not driven by what is good for you or good enough for you, but by what you like best. This could just be the alternative.

    The prize argument is a cheap one and we all know that. With better technologies applied, scale up and automation, prize will drop. Albeit that it will never be as cheap as meat currently produced in the bioindustry.

    4: When this product would become available to the larger public, it certainly will have to proof it meats the standards of consumption food. It also certainly will not be produced on a benchtop in an academic lab, using academic culture methods. For private use like done now, I guess everyone is free to decide what he or she eats. After all, also insects are cooked and eaten in TV shows every now and then.
    On a different note, if you fear your lab is inundated by 'toxic chemicals, viruses, bacteria, mycobacteria, synthetic DNA, other cells that could contaminate the cultures' I propose better lab practice and cleaning to avoid cross contaminations in your lab 😉

    Best regards,

    Reinout


  8. Hi Paul

    Love the blog and respect you thoughts, but I think your are sensationalizing the sensationalizing of this interesting milestone – with “not eating stuff from a lab” due to safety and economics as your main concerns, missed the mark. There is actually a of “Beef” coming out of this project, you just have to know where to look and know how to appreciate it.

    The point of this project was to demonstrate that it is possible – nothing more, and I applaud the fact that they calculated AND advertised how expensive this was up front. Proof of concept a critical milestone in any new technology development, and understand the Cost today helps you figure out how to improve it for the future. The people that funded this understand how critical Proof of Concept is – and the first shot is always…always very expensive. The did it, they proved concept, and they calculated the cost and were transparent about it. Very well done in my book.

    I won’t hit on the safety thing too much, but I think your ideas need a little more homework. Specifically, that 1) ingesting recombinant GFs that are residual in the meat could give you cancer. These concerns are being addressed in the therapetuic development of engineered tissues (and i am sure the therapetuic protein world) – and these aren’t ingested. I am not an expert here, but this seems like a “the sky is falling” response to a new technology, 2) contaminants from the cultureware plastic (the same types that we use to make today’s cell therapies) are bad for you in some way is also a little under-developed. If these were the cases, we wouldn’t have these exact same technologies in therapeutic development. I am fine with bringing up safety concerns, but trying to fan the flames with poor examples is only going to cause problems. You know that well from your other work.

    In response to the economics – i think you fell right into their trap. You are not supposed to be comparing the cost today to a current product today (your In-n-Out Burger analogy). You need to compare the price tomorrow with the future price of a burger tomorrow. Cows are not a sustainable food source for the world….period. There will be convergence.

    To help give you some background: The costs of biology have been dropping for years. You state in the comments that there is no Moore’s Law when it comes to Biology. I have to disagree with you here – Biotech is just behind in development compared to the IT world, and there are examples of multi-log drops in cost when it comes to biology. There is a great book called Biology is Technology (http://www.amazon.com/Biology-Is-Technology-Business-Engineering/dp/0674060156) where the author, Rob Carlson, draws all of the parallels between biotech and information technology – and he has summarized some of his economic bits into this blog post which i propose you read (http://www.synthesis.cc/2013/04/updated-dna-cost-and-productivity-curves-plus-a-few-more-thoughts-on-moores-law.html). Mark my words, you will also see these similar cost reductions over the next several years when it comes to cell biology and tissue engineering. And all of these improvements will have an impact on the convergence of the cost of a tissue engineered meat and the cost of traditional meat.

    Please, it is very easy to throw sticks at or “bully” a new technology. Understand that Proof of Concept – at high costs – is a critical milestone in showing people that things are possible. We are not too far off from a day when living cells will be made at a cost that they are incorporated not just into therapeutic products, but even consumer products like is shown here. You just have to give it a chance.

    Respectfully – Jon


    • Thanks for the comment, Jon, and the relevant links.

      We disagree on this one on many levels. That makes the discussion more interesting, huh? Plus this is indeed ripe for puns.

      It seems to me that you have a relatively naive view of this big media production they made out of the test tube burger. They were apparently not after making a scientific advance, but rather primarily getting a lot of attention and perhaps millions more in funding. I bet they achieve that later goal, but I’m not sure that’s good for science or the public.

      If their media circus show was simply scientific proof of concept of a new technology than I need Lady Gaga to be a co-PI on my next NIH grant.

      Publish the paper FIRST on the burger then, if you must, do the crazy media launch of the burger.

      Doing it the way they did leaves unanswered many legitimate questions such as the use of FBS, how much of the 5 oz patty is meat and how much filler, etc. How long did it take to grow? Was it tested for pathogens? How was it stored after growth and how old was it?

      Scientists are often critical of science by press release (PR), where scientists or agencies (e.g. NASA) do PRs on some supposed scientific discovery before actually publishing on it and notably without actually letting anyone in on the actual data, answering questions from colleagues, etc.

      You might be right that the cost will come down, but I think it’ll be a slow process and I don’t see much demand for this product. Again, you might be correct that beef via cows is not sustainable, but it’s not going anywhere soon and it’s cheap.

      On risks, I believe it was a mistake for the creator to say publicly on TV that there are no risks. I don’t see how you can dispute that that was a gross oversimplification that does not serve science or the public.

      I’m not throwing sticks at a new technology here, but one in which the hype in my opinion got way way ahead of the science.

      I also politely emailed the creator of the burger before doing my post, scientist-to-scientist, just asking a few sciency questions. No response. Now maybe he’s swamped right now due to the media feeding frenzy. Maybe he’ll publish a paper on the burger so we can get some answer such as the use of FBS, etc.


      • Paul

        Thanks for the response. Yes, we are light years away on this on several levels.

        1) you say you are not throwing sticks at a new technology. but that is how I, and several of the above comments have taken your post. Please re-read your own work. Now, i have written a blog in the past and understand it is good to stir things up a bit to generate discussion – so that is almost your “job”. But I think it is bad for the industry to provide misguided “stones”, such as cost and that you could get “cancer” (actually, would be great if you x’ed out that sentence). This is a BIG part of your post.

        2) Mark Post is a REALLY busy guy. He is an MD/PhD department chair…and actually not the type to seek out Hype (more on that later). I worked with him last year helping him understand the costs of scale-up, and it took a month to schedule a call – and that was for me to help him! I don’t think he is avoiding you b/c he doesn’t want to answer your questions – which is what it seems like you are implying.

        3) Risks – while I can’t say exactly what Mark and his team have and don’t have, I do know 2 things. First, Mark Post and his team did their homework, and I bet he has a lot more dilligence than you are “assuming” he did in your post. This guy is an MD – #1 rule for MDs is do no harm, and i bet he has a good feel for the risks. And that can’t be covered in a 2 min CNN video. Second, I actually would feel more comfortable eating beef grown in a lab than a Steak from the store (and I just grilled out last night). I don’t have any #s, but I bet that the Safety QC tests that went into the raw materials for making that burger were far greater than the one that went into my steak last night. I think the required Lab Safety training did it’s job and made you scared of the everything in a lab. To restate my point earlier, many of these materials are used to make cell therapies.

        4) and the biggest point: I disagree that this is Publication by Press Release. You do not Publish how to make a Burger. That is not science, it is cooking (sorry any Chefs out there). You publish how to make engineered muscle tissue, which Mark Post has done. Mark has been doing Tissue Engineering work for some time, and a quick Pubmed search (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=mark+post+muscle) shows he has contributed significantly to the basic and applied muscle biology/tissue engineering literature for several years. He has published how to make tissue engineered muscle, and written a couple of Scientific Reviews in reputed journals on how muscle tissue engineering is going to impact commercial beef. Is that not enough for you? Now, when a Google Millionaire says “hey, how much would it cost to make enough of those muscles to make a burger?” and Mark calculates $300,000 at his bench scale and the guy gives him the money, that is just Product Development and is not a Publishable endeavor in many respects. Putting this Hamburger at the same level of a Stem Cell Product used in Therapy (which is exactly what you are doing here, and you do this very well in the cell therapy world) is very misguided. I develop lots of products, based on sound published technology. But you don’t publish how you bring the basic science together to make a product very often. So this is actually Early Product Development by Press Release, to raise awareness that is is possible. Totally defensible. I would also think that this was the goal of the Google Millionaire, not Mark, as he really isn’t the “hype” type.

        So, I apologize if you think that Products coming from well published science should also be published, but this isn’t how the Technology world works. However, you are entitled to your opinion. If you still disagree, can you put in your next response what exact steps he should have taken prior to doing a press release?

        Respectful Regards from Maryland

        Jon


        • Hi Jon,
          Great comment.

          I think you make some good points and I can definitely see where you are coming from, but we probably will just have to agree to disagree on some aspects of this.

          What steps he should have taken you ask? One basic one. It seems to me that a publication on the stem cell burger (which by the way many top journals would have been salivating to accommodate) timed to be published on the web concurrent with the public unveiling was quite feasible.

          It would have been ideal in fact.

          In this way those of us focused on the more science/technological aspects could have in effect had our lab burger and eaten it (i.e. learned the data about it) too. There are many legitimate fascinating questions.

          Of course you can publish “how to make a burger” and many editors would have died and gone to heaven to publish it.

          What kind of paper? You write “We started with X number of stem cells, we did Y, then we have 10X cells, we used this media and these conditions. After Z days, we had 100X cells and strips of Q mm. We tested it for mycoplasma, endotoxin, other pathogens, etc etc…..”

          I can see how the press event served a practical purpose and it sure raised awareness, but to me it seemed (A) way way over the top and (B) hard to digest in the absence of data.

          One could say they did not publish first or concurrently because much of the data and methods are proprietary, but I suspect this lab burger technology has been patented long ago, correct? Maybe I’m wrong about that. If I am wrong, then I can see why there was no pub.

          Finally, I’m still finding it hard to get past Dr. Post saying on TV something like “there are no risks”. That really bothers me. What do you say to that specific element, Jon?

          Paul

  9. Pingback: Links 8/10/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  10. Pingback: Cells Weekly – August 11, 2013 | Stem Cell Assays


  11. Hi Paul

    OK, i concede defeat in the “pun and hyperbole” department. You definitely win… ; )

    Happy to agree to disagree that this is something one would Publish first. That only adds 6-12 months (or more, in my experience with publishing scientific work) that seems unrealistic to expect for this type of work and the past publishing history of the investigator and the field. Publishing clinical trial data for Cell Therapeutics? Yes! Hamburgers? not so much. Matter of opinion.

    As for Mark’s statements on risk? I didn’t see them so cannot comment on them. Obviously, there is risk associated with everything, so I would not support the suggestion that this has ZERO risk. Everything has context and Mark seems like a careful guy in person and via phone – so I am giving him benefit of doubt. Would lab grown burger have less risk than today’s food supply? Very likely if I were to guess – but again, I am no expert in safety controls.

    Cheers until the next Big Thing.

    Jon


  12. Wow, where to start…. How can someone seriously propose that food grown in a “lab” would have to be dangerous? A vast amount of food products are produced under “laboratory” conditions, that is, made in a sterile environment where precise chemical and biological reactions are controlled and the upmost health and safety standards are adhered to, once this technique was perfected for mass production it would move to a commercial manufacturing facility, not be whipped up one petri dish at a time in a bio lab

    The author must think that this meat would have been cultured right next to an open vile of some kind of pathogen, “as a cell biologist” the author should understand that these kind of culturing techniques are EXTREMELY susceptible to cross contamination due to the growth media being the perfect growing ground for bacteria/fungus, so the upmost care would have been taken in the production of this sample, which would involve the use of sterilisation techniques and a flow hood.

    To say that this “will not happen in our lifetime” is a very luddite view to be taken, and the concept seems to be rejected out of hand for very surface level reasons. If meat is able to be produced without animals, safely and at a reasonable price this would be HUGE, both from an animal welfare perspective but just as importantly from an environmental and climate change perspective. The amount of land/fertilizer/water/energy which goes into producing a calorie of meat compared to crops is massive, if the inefficiency of this method of meat production could be turned around this would be extremely significant, both in the developed world but more importantly in the developing world, where the growth in animal protein consumption by the burgeoning middle class and the associated environmental damage could be curtailed should this become viable

    To pretend that the current method of meat production is safe is like putting your head in the sand, the amount of chemicals/antibiotics pumped into animals living in terribly unsanitary and stressful living conditions is horrendous. Fed a diet of whatever is cheapest to achieve maximum growth the animals are fed unnatural food sources which cause unnatural changes in their body composition. The result of the above intensive factory farming techniques is that the food we eat is far from nutritious and safe

Comments are closed.