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Researching the laboratory grown burger

5 August 2013

Dr Neil Stephens

Dr Neil Stephens

Cardiff sociologist investigates social and ethical impacts of in-vitro meat

The world’s media had its eyes on London today (5th August 2013) at the first ever public tasting of a cultured beef burger made from meat grown in a laboratory using tissue engineering.

This revolutionary technology, known as in-vitro meat, has been developed by Professor Mark Post and his team in Maastricht University, representing a radically new way of growing and eating meat: www.culturedbeef.net

Since 2008, Dr Neil Stephens - a Research Associate at Cesagen based at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences - has been researching the social and ethical issues of this technology and what this innovation in tissue engineering might mean. He has conducted 40 interviews with the scientists, funders and proponents making and supporting cultured meat. He will attend today’s press conference where the burger will be tasted.

According to the scientists, the benefits this new technology can deliver include slaughter-free meat that is healthier and free from animal to human disease. The meat could also be grown during space travel and could have a much smaller environmental impact than today’s whole-animal reared meat.

Dr Stephens has been investigating these promises, analysing how this community of scientists came together and what strategies they use to justify the promises they make. The laboratory work draws upon medical tissue engineering knowledge, and most of the people in the field spend most of their time doing medical research.

Dr Stephens said: “This is a radically new way of making meat. Science has long been involved in meat production, but it has always involved rearing a whole animal that is slaughtered, divided, and eaten. With cultured meat this does not happen.

“It is so unusual, so ambiguous, that I think questions will be raised about whether this is meat at all, if it is a meat alternative, or if it is not even proper food. It is so different it challenges our assumptions about meat.

“My research shows the technology remains very early stage. The field is still small and most scientists receive little funding for their research. They hope the cultured burger event will encourage science funders to give more money.

“The promise of the technology is significant. It is suggested cultured meat will be better for the environment, animals, our health, and the diversity of our diets. But a set of challenges exist, and important questions that need to be asked, about if cultured meat can deliver upon these promises.

“Challenges include up-scaling production so that significant quantities can be made at a competitive price. This involves further research on the liquid the cells are grown on, what cell source is used, and how to operate a large scale industrial bioreactor that the meat could grow in.

“Beyond this, the technology would need to be recognised as food and proved safe in the eyes of food regulators. There are also complex questions about how it would fit in an already complex food system, and how other groups in the food system will respond.”

Dr Stephens’ work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (project RES-145-28-0003), the Wellcome Trust (WT096541MA) and the FP7 EPINET project (288971).

Watch a video of Dr Stephens discussing the emergence of this radically new way of making meat and the key questions about the potential sociological impact of this new technology.

Dr Neil Stephens was interviewed by international and national media about the launch of the cultured beef burger, as a leading expert in the potential social and ethical implications of in vitro meat. Media appearances included:

New York Times
BBC Radio 5
BBC Radio 2, Simon Mayo show
Bloomberg
Financial Times
Daily Mail
BBC Radio Wales, Good Evening Wales
Reuters
Sky News
The National
BBC Newsround
BBC News 24
Al Jazeera
ABC Radio (Australia)