September 24, 2013 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, LMSW, MS

At a Labor Day party earlier this month, I was among the lucky guests filling a plate with an array of tasty picnic food ranging from the traditional cook out items to exotic salads and fruits, all washed down with a blueberry martini. (NO, I do not have the recipe.) Food represents many things in our culture and expresses values in subtle ways – and not so subtle ways. Bidding farewell to summer and enjoying the blessings of some great local produce, I noted that the centerpiece of my meal was a thick grilled hamburger.  Unless otherwise stated, it is presumed to be made of beef. And I had to wonder: will burgers like this one become scarce in my lifetime? With the recent production of meat grown from bovine stem cells, there is speculation that lab-grown meat product will someday replace animal meat as a primary food source. It seems important to consider what is, um, at stake for consumers, for science, and the evolving culture of lab grown food.

As for this new use of stem cell technology, I think we need to question whether or not this was the best use of resources. At  an estimated cost of over $300k, it was terribly expensive to create, but many new technologies come at a price. This Petri dish patty was reported to not taste very good, a shortcoming blamed on the absence of fat in this manufactured patty. However, it was deemed safe to eat and as far as I know, none of the taste testers became ill from ingesting the “schmeat.” Engineered beef might find a welcome in areas where there is mistrust about food safety and where food supply for meat products is limited. Yet, refrigeration needs may still prove a formidable barrier even if cost of manufacture and shipping could be assured. 

And then there is the “ick” factor. However, I would argue that this is not a particularly compelling argument against engineering meat products, per se, as many people do not eat fresh meat products because they find it objectionable for any number of reasons. There is plenty of food on the market that bears no clear link to its origins. Fruit roll ups do not look like fruit. Cheetos don’t look like corn or cheese. Consumers adapt, and perhaps we would all adapt to schmeat as well.

I think the troublesome part of using stem cell technology to make a hamburger is that the human need for scientific advancement in stem cell study and application ought to be applied to medical science where advances can benefit people with chronic, life limiting, and debilitating disease. An expensive burger does not seem like a solution to any of these problems, nor does it seem like an expedient way to resolve food supply issues in places lacking access to safe, reliable servings of protein. Was the money spent on this burger worth it for science? I am not convinced that it was. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

1 comments | Topics: Cost , Resource Allocation , Stem Cell Research , Technology


Linda MacDonald Glenn

Linda MacDonald Glenn wrote on 10/04/13 7:17 PM

Jane, you may enjoy this article I co-wrote with Lisa D'Agastino (an AMC AMBI grad) about this issue in Northeastern University Law Journal, which you can access here:

It's not just about creating a burger, it's about using every tool in our arsenal to feed the world and what is ultimately sustainable -- which our current system is not.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.