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

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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 U.S. 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 literally unveiled the lab-grown burger on a staged TV cooking show of sorts.

The event launching the burger 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 and safety of this burger. For example, the No. 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, in my opinion. 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 might not 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 two 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.

A version of this piece first appeared on my blog ipscell.com.

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