A company called Bite Labs has set up a website offering the concept of “Celebrity Meat”, where cultures of cells scraped from famous people are grown, in vitro, before being mixed with cow and pig meat into salami sausages. Even beyond that, it wants people to join in a Thunderclap tweet campaign to get celebrities like Kanye West, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Lawrence and James Franco (“the Franco salami must be smoky, sexy, and smooth”) involved. It’s quite the sales pitch.
Let’s be clear – Bite Labs is probably a joke. Everything about the site, as slick and Silicon Valley startup-styled as it is, shouts satire on celebrity culture. There is no information at all about the science of creating celebrity meat beyond a quote from Winston Churchill and four paragraphs that give a simplified overview of the process of growing in vitro meat.
Furthermore, on Bite Labs’ Facebook page there are two posts. One is a gallery of pictures of test recipes being prepared in a kitchen; the other is a post of a talk given at the Oxford Union by Game of Thrones actor Jack Gleeson. Titled “I hate celebrity culture”, it’s specifically queued up to start playing this section 12 minutes and 32 seconds in:
Whilst this form of cannibalistic consumerism doesn’t appear inherently damaging to the consumers themselves, the effect it has on the fodder can sometimes be profound. I myself shy away from interviews and the public eye sometimes for this very reason. Having one’s image – and effectively life – democratised dehumanises and sometimes objectifies it into an entertainment product. What sort of valuation of the ego would one have once you’ve let it be preyed upon in the public eye for years and years? Perhaps it becomes just skin and bones.”
Good point, Jack.
Relatedly, celebrity meat is a concept that features in David Cronenburg’s 2012 film Antiviral – in a dystopian future, celebrity obsession has gone so far that fans will buy and eat meat grown from pop stars, or even demand to suffer the same diseases, caused by cultures of cells drawn from celebrity blood. Literally devouring celebrities isn’t a massively original topic for science fiction, because it doesn’t have to extrapolate that far from the already-ridiculous things people do to get closer to their idols.
But really, let’s assume that Bite Labs is real, because what it claims to do is not impossible. It is very feasible, if expensive.
In London last year the first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten in front of an audience. It was described by Hanni Rützler, a nutritional scientist, as “close to meat, it’s not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect”. That’s good, as the burger was made of meat – at the cost of $325,000. When talking about the most common cuts and types of meat that are eaten in the West – steaks, sausages, burger patties, wings, ribs, and so on – they’re mostly muscle with some bits of fat in there for flavour. It’s the muscle bit that requires a huge amount of work to build outside of an animal body, work which is expensive and time-consuming.
The Cultured Beef project, based at Maastricht University, takes stem cells from the necks of cows and encourages them to grow into muscle cells in the lab. That requires feeding them the correct nutritional substances to get them to divide and multiply to form billions of cells, and then taking that food away to starve them – incentivising them to become muscle cells. They then begin to form long strands called myotubes, which, when bunched together, make muscle, but what forms is still a weak, limp, white thing. The Cultured Beef scientists need to colour it with myoglobin, and “train” the muscle mass by attaching it at one end and flexing it, like a real muscle. The consistency of meat, its texture, comes from a living creature moving and exercising, building up strong strands of muscle fibre. This makes even a beef burger, made of mince, a challenge enough – making a full steak is another serious challenge beyond that.
This is so expensive, though, and so time-consuming, that it required the backing of Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, to produce that first edible burger. Yet the benefits of this method are profound – pound-for-pound, in vitro beef requires only 55 percent of the energy used for conventional beef; only four percent of the equivalent emissions of greenhouse gasses; and only one percent of the equivalent land use. Working on it enough to make it competitive with farm-raised beef could – short of a worldwide conversion to vegetarianism – greatly help removing the cause of climate change. There are health benefits, too. Imagine replacing all that delicious saturated fat in beef with omega-3 fatty oils. Red meat would become a health food.
It’s also worth acknowledging that we are currently more than a decade into producing in vitro meat cultures, and that one beef burger is all we’ve got to show for it. According to Bite Labs’ site, the method for making their salamis and sausages is similar to Cultured Beef’s – only there’s no mention of the amount of meat they want to produce, nor how expensive it will be, nor how they have the expertise to do this. That’s probably because, y’know, they can’t, but we’re being kind here, so let’s assume their costs are similar per mass of meat to the proven Cultured Beef process.
While each beef burger-sized mass of meat may cost $325,000, Bite Labs is explicitly mixing it with other meats. Let’s assume that they will be selling their products for a price that’s both not-outrageous but also suitably high. Tesco currently sells salami sausages for ~£10 per kilo; a novelty celebrity salami might be ten times that, at ~£100 per kilo. $325,000, or £200,000, produced a single five ounce, or 0.15kg patty. £200,000 of meat split between £100 salami sausages means 2,000 sausages; that, in turn, means a 2,000th of our 0.15kg of meat in each sausage – or 0.000075kg, which is slightly less than a fiftieth the size of an average raindrop.
That means you’d get more of James Franco in each salami sausage if you asked him to spit in each individual bowl of minced meat. Somehow, though, that doesn’t quite have the same appeal.