Behold: the frankenburger


Image: federico stevanin/

Meat has been a key part of the human diet for a great chunk of history and remains the centrepiece of most meals in developed countries. 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is used as pasture for over 17bn livestock animals. Much is also used to grow their feed – a pound of beef requires around seven pounds of feed. That pound also requires 2,464 gallons of water.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that livestock-rearing is one of the principal causes of deforestation, which also causes the destruction of plants and animals. Agriculture consumes 10 percent of the energy used each year in the United States. Then there are all those farting cows

Pollution results from livestock’s urine and faeces – 2.7 trillion pounds of the latter a year in the United States, 10 times the output of humans. In 1995, 25 million gallons of this waste spilled from a hog farm into North Carolina’s New River, killing over 10 million fish. And never mind the smell. Overgrazing can cause land quality to decline, with the US Bureau of Land Management finding that 16 percent of grazing allotments failed to meet health standards. Subsidies are lavished upon corn and soy that’s fed to livestock. Animal feed is laden with antibiotics. There’s also abuse of animals. Things will only get worse, with meat consumption increasing threefold in developing countries since 1963, and ninefold in the case of China. Meat consumption is expected to double by 2060.

One solution to all these problems, as advocated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is veganism. A rather easier one is meat grown in vitro, which received a demonstration in West London on August 4 that was broadcast on the internet. It has been christened the frankenburger, with other suggested names including shamburger, burgerzilla, test tube burger and cultured beef, the term preferred by this thing’s creators. Another name suggested was the quarter million pounder due to its cost. The Sun, the United Kingdom’s best-selling newspaper, quipped, “At that price, the free toy had better be good.”

PETA approves. Ingrid Newkirk, its president and co-founder, said, “Instead of the millions and billions <of animals> being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells.” The father of the frankenburger recounted that the chairman of the Dutch Society of Vegetarians estimated that around half of members would eat meat if no animals died along the way. Support was provided by Jonathan Garlick, who researches stem cells for Boston’s Tufts University School of Dental Medicine: “I’m a vegetarian, but I would be first in line to try this.”

It takes three months to grow a frankenburger in a laboratory. Stem cells, which can develop into any cell, are removed from cow muscle. In this case, a Blanc Bleu Belge and a Blond Acquitaine cow were used. The cells are incubated in a broth of nutrients so that they multiply manifold to form a sticky tissue. The result is applied to Velcro, then stretched and subjected to electrical pulses to bulk it up. After that, just add breadcrumbs, egg powder, natural red colourants and salt.

The frankenburger was created by the Dutch scientist, Mark Post of Maastricht University, one of a very few scientists to work in the field. Five years of research was required. Post believes artificial meat could be on sale in supermarkets within a decade, and Ladbrokes gave odds of 4/6 for this, with Waitrose 3/1 favourite to be the first supermarket to stock it. Post took a piece at the demonstration to give to his children. He declared, “We are producing meat. It’s just not in a cow.”

The project was funded by the billionaire founder of Google, Sergey Brin. Artificial meat will grow cheaper. Moore’s Law states that the price of computers halves every 18 months, and genetic research behaves similarly. Brin said on video that the technology was “on the cusp of viability” and “If what you are doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, you are not being transformative enough.”

The chef, Richard McGeown, admitted that little aroma emanated from the sizzling patty. One tester, an Austrian food researcher by the name of Hanni Rutzler, remarked, “I was expecting the texture to be more soft. It’s close to meat.” The other, food writer, Josh Schonwald, said, “The bite feels like a conventional hamburger.” Both were of the opinion that there was little fat and consequently less flavour, with Schonwald calling the flavour “conspicuously different” and comparing it to animal-protein cake. Stig Omholt, the director of biotechnology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and not a part of the project, revealed, “Taste is the least important problem since this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells.”

The consensus of tasters was that the Frankenburger was quite like meat and also somewhat dry. A writer for the Daily Mail – who didn’t actually taste the frankenburger – was more damning, grousing that it bears as much relationship to meat as perspex does to glass or nylon to cotton and that at least the infamous horse burgers actually came from an animal.

Post summarised the demonstration as “a very good start.” Artificial meat could lessen the need for land and water by 90 percent and energy use by 70 percent. If stem cell meat became popular, research in related areas could accelerate, with one possible result being the growth of human organs for transplant.

If anybody finds the prospect of artificial meat icky, it should be remembered that when Edward Jenner vaccinated people against smallpox using cowpox, there was a widespread outcry, and newspaper cartoons depicted people transforming into cows. Blood transfusions and transplants have also in the past been regarded thus.


About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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