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'Shamburger' doesn't have a cell of a chance

August 07, 2013

Along with the rest of the nation, I watched in horror as a couple of “food experts” sampled a hamburger-like patty grown in a petri dish from the stem cells of a cow.

In fact, the only facial expressions worse than mine were found on the food experts themselves, who looked as if they would rather be taste-testing locusts dipped in garbage water.

The idea, as I understand it, is to produce meat without having to raise or kill anything. There are some issues to work out. This one meal cost $330,000 and took three years to bring to the table. (Actually I think I ate at that same restaurant just last month; it’s down around Fairfax, Va.)

The process of making the burger is rather technical and appetite-killing in its own right. Scientists start with fetal calf serum and eventually end up with 20,000 skinny little ribbons of cultured muscle tissue. There are a few additives that go into the end product, including beet juice for color, so the “shamburger” somewhat resembles the real thing.

But really, I don’t know why we’re even talking about this. Since the burger is grown from stem cells, it will never make it past House Republicans.

But if you want, I’m sure you can find video of the cooking process, in which, facilitated by an estimated 30 sticks of butter, what appears to be a urinal cake is transformed into what appears to be a hockey puck.

The official tasters dubiously carved off slivers of the thing — and chewed on it as if they expected it to bite back. They might have been tentative because of the price tag; when a foodstuff costs as much as a small airplane, you don’t want to tear into it like a dog going after a dropped scoop of ice cream.

Finally, one of them gave this ringing endorsement: “It’s better than tofu.”

Well, obviously. Tofu tries so hard, but in the end, it’s still tofu.

The second expert more or less praised the product for being shaped like a hamburger, but then went on to say it could use salt. And ketchup. And pickles and a bun and mustard and lettuce and about 30 strips of bacon.

And really, isn’t that the truth? No matter how dubious the beef, by the time a fast-food restaurant gets through with it, nobody will know. A hamburger without meat? Big deal, American food conglomerates have been doing that for years.

Beyond that, this whole growing-stuff-from-cells world is so strange to me. Who would have thought we could reproduce organs and body parts like some sort of fleshy Chia Pet, much less raise our groceries in the same manner?

I’ll be long gone by the time this stuff goes mainstream, which is probably a good thing. I don’t like the thought of breakfast sausage growing in a laboratory refrigerator next to someone’s new eyeballs.

I also do not have the same problems that some apparently do with taking our food off the land. A cow has to die sometime, right? Instead of working to see that they can all live to age 65 and start collecting retirement, I sort of think it’s more important to see that they live good, happy lives while they’re here.

And finally, there’s the fat conundrum. All involved admit that the test-tube hamburger tastes like, well, a hockey puck, because lab-grown tissue contains no fat. Scientists say this is the “bottleneck” that’s impeding progress at the moment.

So for maybe the first time in the history of food, man has become obsessed with getting fat into a product instead of taking it out.

That’s delicious.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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