Home About RSS

Pigs in a Vat

When I was a kid, my mom would sometimes make us “Pigs in a Blanket.” It involved taking hot dogs, wrapping them in biscuit dough, and baking them. I don’t remember now whether my mom made biscuit dough from scratch, from semi-scratch (i.e., from Bisquick), or from refrigerated tubes of biscuit dough. Whichever way, we’d end up with hot dogs in their own, form-fitting buns – “pigs in a blanket.” My family was from central Ohio, though we moved to Southern California when I was eight. I don’t know how widespread this dish was, but my wife, who grew up on the outskirts of Houston, remembers the same dish. (Of course, it turns out there is a Wikipedia page for this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigs_in_a_blanket.) It wasn’t haute cuisine, but it was cheap and tasty and we liked it.

This January, an Associated Press story on some Dutch research kicked off another flurry of stories about a technology that has been under development for several years – growing meat without animals. Researchers in the Netherlands reported further successes in using pig stem cells to grow pig muscle tissue in vitro.

The results do not have the texture of pork. The tissue was too diffuse, presumably because the muscle had not “been exercised.” It also is not clear whether the tissue contained any blood vessels and whether that would make a difference to the texture. There is no report of its taste; these researchers say they have not tried it. It seems unlikely, though, that without major advances this meat will challenge a grilled pork loin, a rack of lamb, or a rib eye steak. Still, there is a lot of room for lower quality meat. Most of the meat that went into the hot dogs in my pigs in a blanket would have been decidedly unappetizing, if not disgusting, as “meat”. Vat-grown meat could have a huge market even if it were only used in sausages, ground meat, sauces, and so on.

Vat-produced meat could be a major environmental benefit. Some say that it would reduce the amount of land and water needed to produce a pound of meat by 95 percent. With rising global incomes have come rising global demand for meat. Some estimates are that meat consumption will double by 2050. The environmental costs would be enormous. (Of course, one person’s costs are another person’s profits – shifting to vat-grown meat would lower the demand for the grain used to feed cattle and pigs, as well as for the vast stretches of land around the world whose only economic value currently is for grazing. Will the ranchers of the American West be able to survive as purveyors of only the luxury cuts?).

Vat-produced meat might also have health advantages. Assuming, at least, good factory procedures, avoiding E. coli infection should be easier in vats than in feedlots. The Dutch scientists even talk of engineering their process to produce, say, more omega 3 fatty acids, which seem to be responsible for some of the cardiac benefits of eating fish.

What about the moral issues? Will Saletan at Slate had a nice post on this in 2007, discussing meat eating as a moral conflict with our appetites that bioreactors could solve: http://www.slate.com/id/2142547/. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has already offered a prize for growing chicken nuggets (albeit a prize that Saletan convincingly dismisses in another post as public relations stunt).

Would vegetarians eat it? As an omnivore, I am not the best person to discuss this issue, but it seems to me that the answer should be “it depends.” Someone who is vegetarian because of the suffering of animals should be willing to eat this food. There’s no animal involved; it is very, very hard to see what could be suffering. Someone who is vegetarian for perceived health reasons might want to know more about the health effects of this kind of meat, but I suspect their strong default position would be against eating it. Someone who was vegetarian for other ethical reasons involving the relationship between humans and other animals might, or might not, want to eat this.

What about those with religious objections to eating all, or particular kinds of, meat? I do not know what religious vegetarians, such as some Buddhists, would do. Nor do I know what those who abstain from particular kinds of meat (pork for Muslims and Jews; beef for Hindus) would do with vat-produced versions of this meat. My guess is that there would likely be different interpretations. Some interpreters might view the religious injunction as based on the characteristics of the animal itself (profane or sacred) and could conclude that it did not apply when the animal when did not exist. Or possibly that muscle tissue with porcine or bovine DNA was not, actually, pork or beef when it was not produced by a pig or cow.

Others might take a more literal view of the prohibition and conclude that the divine will was not to be toyed with by clever human equivocation. And still others might conclude that the process itself was unnatural and (or?) unholy and so rendered its product inedible, even if the tissue was from an allowed animal. A blog called io9 quoted Arnold Bienstock, a Conservative rabbi from Indiana on the issue of kosher pork: “The way any religious issue comes down, in the Jewish community, is the more traditional, pious Orthodox Jews have a hard time accepting change, the Reform embrace it, and the Conservatives fight about it. . . . ”

Of course, the argument from the separation of the “food” from the “illicit animal” might be taken to extremes that would be deeply unsettling to those of any, or no, religious faith. Would eating vat produced human tissue be cannibalism? I suspect the answer would be “yes,” though I’m not sure it should be. (I, for one, though, am in no hurry to try even vat-produced “long pork”.)

What about the organic food/slow food/eating traditionalists and, more broadly, those (on the left and the right) who are concerned about “naturalness” in things? Will they adopt this meat for its environmental and ethical advantages or reject it as unnatural? (They will ignore, of course, the huge role human agriculture has played in literally creating the cattle, pigs, and sheep we eat today.) Will people who protest against GMOs adopt, oppose, or just be confused by this new, apparently beneficial technology?

And, finally, what about the law? The Department of Agriculture regulates fresh meat in the US; the FDA regulates processed foods. Who gets this? Will labeling regulations be adopted, if so, will they be upheld? Will the Berkeleys of the country ban declare themselves “no vat” zones, or will they encourage it?

This is a blog post, not a law review article, and I have done very little research on this topic. There may be a well-established literature about the likely treatment, and consequences, of this kind of meat. (If you know some, let me know!) My main conclusions, though, are two in number:

First, vat-produced meat is likely to become a substantial factor in human food sometime in the next few decades.

Second, watching what we make of it will be fascinating.

I am genuinely quite interested in your thoughts.

Hank Greely

Leave a Reply