Test-tube burgers: Do they pass the vegetarian test?

News broke this week that a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands had created the world's first test-tube burger. Tasters gave the burger -- which was mixed with salt, egg powder, bread crumbs, beetroot juice and saffron for taste and visual enhancement -- a big "meh, it's okay." But aside from the taste, this meat-grown-in-a-lab opens up a whole new range of philosophical questions.

Including this: Should vegetarians allow themselves to consume meat grown in a lab?

See also: - Five ways to really piss off vegetarians, starting with Red Robin's veggie burger ad - A carnivore's guide to five great vegetarian dishes - An open letter to militant vegans

Apologies to those of you who would like a simple yes or no answer, because my opinion is that...well, it depends.

There are two basic reasons why people stop eating meat. One has to do with the ethics involved in consuming meat, and the other is focused on the health problems that excessive meat consumption can cause.

From an ethical standpoint, it seems like test-tube burgers would be a pretty legitimate source of protein. PETA has been exhorting someone -- anyone -- to grow meat in a lab instead of slaughtering animals, offering a $1 million cash prize for the first person to do so. It's easy to understand the organization's platform: Once meat is regularly grown in labs, we can stop all this factory-farming nonsense -- and, let's face it, it's pretty much impossible to defend factory farms as a humane method of meat production once you learn a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

So for vegetarians (and vegans) who don't like the fact that an animal has to die to produce the meat that humans eat, this is a clear victory -- assuming, of course, that the cells harvested from the muscle of the cow that provided the DNA stamp for this burger were procured humanely. I'm not going to pretend to know the first thing about how such things are accomplished; all I know is that muscle cells were taken from cows raised on an organic diet. Before people who eat plant-based food for ethical reasons start placing orders for test-tube burgers, I think there are a couple more questions that need to be considered: For example, what did that cell-harvesting process look like? Did it hurt the cow?

There's an argument to be made that even if the procedure does hurt the cow, it's worth a little pain to one animal to potentially save hundreds of thousands more from certain death. But that's something that individual veggie-eaters will have to work out for themselves. And if the cows are none the worse for wear, then vegetarians should be able to allow themselves a taste of lab-grown beef every now and then.

People who have cut meat out of their diets for health reasons have a tougher time parsing this issue, I think. The test-tube-grown beef is free of hormones and preservatives and many of the disgusting things that are added to commercial meat to maximize profit (never mind that some of it has been shown to be harmful), so that's a point in its favor. But the fact remains that most Americans consume meat far in excess of the amounts ideal for our bodies. One serving size of cooked meat is about the size of a deck of cards; you can see that people frequently eat three to five times as much as the FDA says they "should" in one sitting, multiplied by three meals a day.

I don't eat meat because I have unusually high cholesterol and a ticking-time-bomb of a family history of heart disease. After refusing to go on Lipitor at 25 and trying everything else I could think of to lower my cholesterol, I finally decided that going meat-free was the best option for me. And it has been; my bloodwork is perfect, and I don't miss eating animal tissue in the slightest. I can certainly sympathize with the ethical arguments against eating meat, but the original impetus for my decision was health-related.

And I doubt I would eat a test-tube burger, even if one were offered me. It might be hormone-free, but it's not cholesterol-free. At this stage, it's also impossible to say what the potential repercussions of growing meat in a lab might be. Ten years ago, we heard a lot more people arguing that genetically modified plant organisms were perfectly safe; now, data is surfacing that indicates it might be pretty damn bad for you. So I'm not soothed by assurances that meat created in a test tube is "perfectly safe." We don't yet know everything there is to know about how we digest and metabolize food, and it would be hubris to suggest that there isn't at least a small possibility that meat grown in a lab could be worse for your body than good, old-fashioned, grass-fed beef.

Regardless of what my opinion might be, it'll take some time before this method of meat production becomes cost-effective enough to make it to the market. Meanwhile, I'm sure some plant-eaters will be counting down the days till they can eat a "real" burger again -- while others, like me, will continue to shrug and enjoy our veggie burgers.

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen

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