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Test Tube Nuggets

Wed, 05/21/2008 - 8:23am
Karen Langhauser, Editor

I'm clearly not a PETA supporter despite the fact that I feel that chickens serve a very divine purpose on this planet, especially when covered in honey mustard and put on my sandwich. Therefore, I typically dismiss all PETA news events as blatant publicity stunts and inadequate attempts to destroy much of the industry that keeps my publication alive. But I have to hand it to them this time, because they have my attention.

PETA recently announced a one million dollar prize for the first individual or group to develop and sell in vitro chicken meat on a commercial level. In vitro meat is essentially meat grown in a laboratory without the physical body or organs of the actual animal. Starter animal muscle cells, suspended in a growth medium (as a food source for the cells), enable meat to be grown on sheets in a lab. Sounds delicious, right?

It might not sound aesthetically appealing at first, but I think one of the most interesting things about in vitro meat is the conundrum it could bring for vegetarians. I never turn down the opportunity to sit down with a vegetarian and really delve into the reasoning behind his/her diet choices. I've come across two common types of vegetarians. First, there is the "I don't eat anything with a face" and "killing animals is cruel" vegetarian. Second, there is the more socially responsible vegetarian who has concerns about everything from the impact of livestock on our land, air and water to the effects that hormones injected into poultry and cattle can have on our health. I'm not saying either view is incorrect. What is intriguing though is that in vitro meat would strip these vegetarians of all their rationale.

In recent years, research organizations devoted to developing meat substitutes, including in vitro, have emerged. These organizations claim that because meat substitutes are produced under controlled conditions (versus a farm for example) the substitutes are safer for consumption, have less of an environmental impact and are more humane than traditional meat.

I'll buy that argument. But despite even a one million dollar incentive, it remains to be seen whether or not in vitro meat could ever be economically competitive with traditional meat, or more importantly, whether any consumer, vegetarians and meat eaters alike, would want to eat lab-grown meat

What this does show us is that as our breath of scientific knowledge proliferates, the face of the food industry could see some changes. While it is unrealistic to expect a total overhaul of traditional food production methods (ala the Jetsons or Star Trek), the possibility of innovation such as cloned meat, in vitro meat or nanofood is now more than just science fiction. The food industry will have to share some portion of its market with products that no one formerly thought could even exist.

One more thing - and this is just me being somewhat antagonistic - but if you truly follow all the rules of the PETA contest and manage to be the first in the country to successfully create and then sell in vitro chicken in at least ten U.S. states - wouldn't a million dollar prize just be pocket change

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