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Fake burger raises the issue of food costs

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

One small bite of burger, one giant push into the latest debate on the future of food.

When two food scientists and a book researcher split a hamburger Monday, it wasn’t a cheap lunch. It took two years and $325,000 from Google co-founder Sergey Brin to develop that burger.

It was grown in a petri dish using stem cells to create 20,000 strands of muscle fiber that were squished together with breadcrumbs, salt and natural coloring to make a 5-ounce lab burger.

How did it taste? Dry, apparently: Muscle fiber isn’t fat fiber, as workout coaches are so fond of reminding us. The burger had to be fried in a lot of extra butter.

Pictures of the uncooked in-vitro burger, red and packed into a round plastic mold, looked convincingly like ground beef, though. It certainly looked more beef-like than the last fast-food burger I tried.

Even though a public relations firm staged the tasting, presented live on the Internet, the scientists refused to let journalists who were in the audience have a taste. The burger was too small to share, they said. And heck, the darn thing cost $65,000 an ounce. Reporters are notoriously bad tippers and we hate to split a check.

At first, of course, the lab burger will just be the start to a lot of jokes about the punch line from the movie “Soylent Green” – this soylent green apparently won’t be people, which is a relief.

But it may turn out the future of food will be beef that doesn’t have to come from a cow raised on increasingly limited amounts of crop land. That might be a relief, too.

By the end of the day Monday, the debates had broken out in full. Some vegetarians were ranting that we shouldn’t eat meat at all. Anti-science factions had come out against the idea of anything that sounds anti-nature, even though the cells in the meat fibers did originate with a cow.

In a surprise announcement, Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, came out in favor:

“As long as there’s anybody who’s willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we’re all for this.”

While the food factions squared off, I pondered what could be grown in a petri dish that I might want someday.

I’m already paying enough for my fresh food. If I keep paying it to a farmer, maybe the land around my city will be worth keeping for crops instead of petri dish factories.

The truth, though, is that lab burger is only expensive now, in the beginning. Proponents say a couple of decades down the road, when this is perfected, the fake stuff will be cheap and real beef will be only for the rich.

Then I look at what I pay now for grass-fed, locally raised beef and I realize: We’re already divided into those who have the luxury of buying real food and those who have to buy the cheaper, industrially produced version.

Maybe the real breakthrough with the lab burger is realizing that we already live with that.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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