Skip to content

Human cultured meat: Would you eat?

December 6, 2011

There’s a lot of buzz about in vitro meat. The idea is to grow animal muscle cells in tissue culture for human consumption. This could be helpful for the various space-faring scenarios on Charlie’s blog, and for respecters of animal rights who enjoy the taste of meat. Norwegian researchers aim for “a large-scale process industry for the production of muscle tissue for human consumption.” They claim to be near producing hamburger at reasonable prices. And PETA offers a $1 million prize for the first in vitro chicken for sale.

But if we’re culturing meat, why not go the whole way? Why not culture human flesh? Some human societies practice ritual consumption of dead relatives, or of placenta. Placental flesh is already used for research and drug production. (Parents: When your child was born, did you ever ask the hospital what they did with the placenta? Check a molecular biology supply catalog.)

So why not culture human cells for meat?  The nutrients would be balanced perfectly for human growth. And it tastes sweet.

Would you eat it?

  1. December 6, 2011 9:42 pm

    Having just read Atwood, this does remind me of chickie-nobs. What would be the reason for not eating such meat? It sounds safer than some of the meats being produced and sold in the grocery store today. I cringe when I eat a bite of any ground beef I didn’t buy myself.

  2. December 7, 2011 2:42 am

    If I were satisfied that it had been produced under properly sterile conditions, I’d give it a try, but I’d want to be very sure about the quality control; the same warnings about eating pigs go even more so for humans.

    Are you sure the nutrients would be perfectly balanced? We might not be 100% efficient about extracting them from the tissue.

    In a time travel game, I had one detail from a far-future society: “Bodhisattva Burgers”. All meat was cultured from animals you could meet in petting zoos (to be certain that they had undergone no more harm than having samples taken), but one promotional came from someone pointing out that they weren’t sentient and hadn’t given consent. So he had retroviruses injected in his major muscle groups to make them each taste like beef, chicken, pork, and lamb, and had meat cultured from those, so that people could be confident that the cell donor had consciously consented. This amused and weirded out the players.

  3. JamesPadraicR permalink
    December 7, 2011 10:06 am

    Suggested reading: “The Food of the Gods” by Arthur C. Clarke, 1961. Though, I suppose I’ve spoilered it.

    As a vegetarian, for just over 20 years*, I haven’t quite decided what to think about cultured meat–of any sort. I would probably try it, maybe not Human, but who knows. I think there are people who would eat it without batting a lash (I suspect I wouldn’t want to know them), but the majority would likely have problems getting over the idea of eating Human flesh, even if they were to meet the original donors, and see them perfectly healthy. OTOH, seeing them alive and well, might go a long way to alleviating their unease.

    Now, I’m wondering about the Kashrut (whether it’s Kosher, or not) of cultured meat. I suspect the orthodox would never accept it, and the rest of Jewry would have the same problems with it as the rest of society. A possible short story idea I’ll have to think about.

    *not for the animal-rightsy reasons I had when I was 19, and I’ve never liked PETA.

    • December 7, 2011 10:57 am

      Religious views will be interesting. Already, religions have to deal with, for example, plants engineered with a single animal gene. Or chicken engineered with a pork gene.

      About PETA, I don’t agree with them overall, and I support animal research.
      But I do support good care for animals–and regulations for animal care exist mainly because PETA exists.

      • JamesPadraicR permalink
        December 7, 2011 3:39 pm

        I didn’t mean to imply that I no longer believe in animal rights, just that my views are more moderate than they had been when I was younger, though I was never into the ‘Animal Liberation’ thing. I certainly still feel that animals should be treated humanely. My problem with PETA is that it too often seems as if they are more about publicity, than actually doing something useful.

        I’m not sure what Rabbinic thought on transgenic animals and plants is, but I’d guess that a chicken with pig genes, might be considered kosher, as long as it had those genes when its egg was laid (or plants from seed), and not have them inserted afterward (if that’s possible). After all, even gelatin that is pork derived can be considered kosher, the argument is that it has been processed to the point of having nearly no connection to a pig (though I’m fairly certain that kosher gelatin is only beef or chicken derived). Then again, the ultra-orthodox might have a problem with transgenics as being man-made rather than “as god made them”. But like I said, just a guess.

  4. December 7, 2011 3:06 pm

    Cultured meat, animal flesh, human flesh–these are labels. The distinctions between people’s feelings toward such things are self-imposed. Any decent marketing manager would point out that the labels for ones products must be inviting, not off-putting.

    Firstly, the main group: Cultured Meat suggests a laboratory growing a monstrous beast with no nervous system–nobody wants to eat that, and it sounds slimy. Synthetic Protein would be a step in the right direction, but still a bit ‘Spock’-ey–perhaps ‘omni-beef’ or ‘sweet-stuff’, maybe even ‘Saint Food’ (the meal that saves a life!)

    As for the different types, I would suggest they be ‘flavors’–chicken would be ‘picnic flavor’; beef could be ‘BBQ flavor’, pork might go by ‘luxury flavored’, and human would be named anything but ‘human’, maybe ‘savage flavor’, or ‘hearty flavor’–or maybe, turned on its head, it could go by ‘purity’ or ‘super-healthy’ (adds nothing to your body that isn’t already there!)

    Many’s the vegetarian that is born of witnessing the slaughter–we have done a pretty good job of keeping the reality of our meat diet out of sight. By the same token, the more comfortable the mind of the consumer, the more they’ll enjoy cultured meat (and the more ‘meat’ will be sold).

    The fact is that a cultured mass of muscle and fat is not an animal–it has no birth, no death, no feeling (not even the neural axion bunches of octupi!), no head, no face, no eyes–in short, it is ethically identical to the yeast used to make beer, bread, or sourdough pancakes.

    If there is any problem with human-based cultures, it would be that it sets up a bad habit–if the culture-factory shuts down, those people might start looking (hungrily) around. There is also the consideration of that disease you get from cannibalism–I forget what it’s called, but it’s very dangerous and any possibility of cultures supporting the same what-you-call-ems would be a solid argument against, I should think.

  5. December 7, 2011 3:09 pm

    I just realized you left out a question–how would feel about custom-human flesh–you supply your ‘butcher’ with a gene sample and the meat is grown to be identical to your own body? Would your body refuse to digest it because it appears to be a part of your body?

    • JamesPadraicR permalink
      December 7, 2011 3:51 pm

      Try to find the Clarke story I mentioned above, it’s about the marketing of cultured meats.

      The disease you’re thinking of is Kuru.

  6. December 7, 2011 8:53 pm

    I think Xper has an interesting point–what if people acquire a taste for cultured human flesh, then it becomes unavailable? Even before that, could the availability of human culture “lower the bar” for an illegal market for human flesh? Already there’s an illegal market for organs.

    The researchers trying to grow meat in a dish want to grow actual muscle fibers that would have the same texture as the original. That’s not so hard as it sounds. It’s long been possible to culture various tissues in a dish; for instance, cultured chicken heart tissue actually starts to “beat.”

  7. SFreader permalink
    December 8, 2011 11:11 am

    If cannibalism were the healthiest, most balanced diet for organisms, then the large majority of biota would have evolved to be cannibals. From what I recall of Bio 101, this is not the case. Therefore, cannibalism (however you choose to market/label/position it) is not — given our current physio0logical make-up — a healthy strategy, cultural conditioning aside. The question then becomes, what additional tweaks (nutrients) would have to be added/embedded to this nutrient genome to make it healthy. I think this brings us back to an earlier discussion, i.e., (genetic) chimeras and mosaics.

    • December 8, 2011 11:22 am

      A very interesting question. Actually, many kinds of organism could be considered cannibals. Some bacteria put out toxins that kill members of their species who don’t have the gene to make the toxin. Among animals: fish and frogs routinely consume smaller members they’ve spawned. And among mammals, meat eaters do kill and eat offspring that aren’t their own. Even female chimpanzees do this, as Jane Goodall discovered.

      It’s true that, by logic, no organism can depend on eating only conspecifics, but many include them in their diet; including humans. The Mayas and Aztecs were famous for this. Anthropologists associate cannibalism with a lack of good dietary protein sources.

    • ivancho permalink
      December 10, 2011 2:57 am

      “If cannibalism were the healthiest, most balanced diet for organisms, then the large majority of biota would have evolved to be cannibals.”
      This is not correct from evolution point of view. Unless you can make up for the individuals you eat before reproducing by having a massive offspring (think spiders), then a mostly-cannibalistic diet is a losing strategy for the species overall so will be selected against.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: