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SCIENCE / HEALTH -
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Mystery Meat -- Let's Be Open About Food's Origins

Posted in the database on Sunday, June 25th, 2006 @ 18:00:57 MST (2156 views)
by Paul D. Johnson    Providence Journal  

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The U.S. economy manages to follow the law and label every electronic gadget and stitch of clothing with where it comes from. Manufacturers likewise have no trouble putting a required nutrition list on food packages. But telling where food originates is called too daunting, and whether it was made by means unknown in nature is judged irrelevant.

The rest of the developed world doesn't see it so, and apparently isn't as beholden to agribusiness interests as is our government. Americans deserve better. Congress supported the right of consumers to know where their food comes from and included a country-of-origin label requirement back in the 2002 farm bill.

But the Agriculture Department opposed this, favoring a voluntary program, and its economists warned that implementation would cost $1.9 billion.

University of Florida researchers, on the other hand, estimated the price would be 90 percent below that claim and cost consumers less than one-tenth of a cent per pound of food.

The government then quietly lowered its estimate by two-thirds. But the political damage was done.

Congress postponed implementation.

Meanwhile, the nation's four biggest meat packers, which process more than 80 percent of the beef in this country, are quite happy. Without the label requirement, they can continue to import cheaper foreign beef to leverage down the price of American cattle. This imported beef gets an Agriculture Department inspection label when processed here, and is sold to unsuspecting consumers, who assume it is expensive American beef.

Also keeping consumers in the dark, the Food and Drug Administration refuses to require labels on food whose production involves genetic modification.

In 1994, the agency approved commercial use of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to increase milk production, and said that no label was needed.

Canada looked at the same test data from the manufacturer, Monsanto, and banned the hormone. So did the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other industrialized countries. There is concern that the hormone raises human cancer risk. And because cows on the production stimulant are more prone to udder infection, more antibiotics are used. Overuse of antibiotics undermines our pharmaceutical arsenal by encouraging antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The Agriculture Department reported in 2002 that 2 million of America's 9.2 million dairy cows received the hormone, and that larger dairies use it far more than farms with fewer than 100 cows. Given the industry's mixing of milk from many farms, most U.S. dairy products have milk from injected cows.

The FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically modified food did not differ from other foods in any meaningful way. But there was considerable debate within the FDA over the differences between foods with and without genetic modification. A lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity prompted the agency to release documents that highlighted the concerns some agency scientists had about biotech foods.

But under this country's present voluntary system, they remain unlabeled. Polls show that demand for this kind of food is low, and a large majority wants labeling. That could spell market failure, so biotechnology companies and agribusiness giants are opposed.

Without any labeling and separating of genetically modified ingredients, many overseas buyers have rejected corn, soy, canola, and cotton from the United States and Canada. In this country, large natural-food supermarket chains have announced that they will use no genetically modified foods in store brands.

But most processed food in this country contains soy, corn, or both in some form, and 80 percent of soy and 38 percent of corn commercially grown in the United States is genetically altered.

In a free and open market, transparency is necessary for consumers to know what they are getting. Scientists and nations around the world recognize this. But where and how Americans' food is raised too often remains hidden. We should enjoy the basic right to know.

Paul D. Johnson, an organic-market gardener and a family-farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas, is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.

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Test Tube Meat Nears Dinner Table

By Lakshmi Sandhana
Wired.com

What if the next burger you ate was created in a warm, nutrient-enriched soup swirling within a bioreactor?

Edible, lab-grown ground chuck that smells and tastes just like the real thing might take a place next to Quorn at supermarkets in just a few years, thanks to some determined meat researchers. Scientists routinely grow small quantities of muscle cells in petri dishes for experiments, but now for the first time a concentrated effort is under way to mass-produce meat in this manner.

Henk Haagsman, a professor of meat sciences at Utrecht University, and his Dutch colleagues are working on growing artificial pork meat out of pig stem cells. They hope to grow a form of minced meat suitable for burgers, sausages and pizza toppings within the next few years.

Currently involved in identifying the type of stem cells that will multiply the most to create larger quantities of meat within a bioreactor, the team hopes to have concrete results by 2009. The 2 million euro ($2.5 million) Dutch-government-funded project began in April 2005. The work is one arm of a worldwide research effort focused on growing meat from cell cultures on an industrial scale.

"All of the technology exists today to make ground meat products in vitro," says Paul Kosnik, vice president of engineering at Tissue Genesis in Hawaii. Kosnik is growing scaffold-free, self-assembled muscle. "We believe the goal of a processed meat product is attainable in the next five years if funding is available and the R&D is pursued aggressively."

A single cell could theoretically produce enough meat to feed the world's population for a year. But the challenge lies in figuring out how to grow it on a large scale. Jason Matheny, a University of Maryland doctoral student and a director of New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that funds research on in vitro meat, believes the easiest way to create edible tissue is to grow "meat sheets," which are layers of animal muscle and fat cells stretched out over large flat sheets made of either edible or removable material. The meat can then be ground up or stacked or rolled to get a thicker cut.

"You'd need a bunch of industrial-size bioreactors," says Matheny. "One to produce the growth media, one to produce cells, and one that produces the meat sheets. The whole operation could be under one roof."

The advantage, he says, is you avoid the inefficiencies and bottlenecks of conventional meat production. No more feed grain production and processing, breeders, hatcheries, grow-out, slaughter or processing facilities.

"To produce the meat we eat now, 75 (percent) to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue," says Matheny. "With cultured meat, there's no body to support; you're only building the meat that eventually gets eaten."

The sheets would be less than 1 mm thick and take a few weeks to grow. But the real issue is the expense. If cultivated with nutrient solutions that are currently used for biomedical applications, the cost of producing one pound of in vitro meat runs anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

Matheny believes in vitro meat can compete with conventional meat by using nutrients from plant or fungal sources, which could bring the cost down to about $1 per pound.

If successful, artificially grown meat could be tailored to be far healthier than any type of farm-grown meat. It's possible to stuff if full of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, adjust the protein or texture to suit individual taste preferences and screen it for food-borne diseases.

But will it really catch on? The Food and Drug Administration has already barred food products involving cloned animals from the market until their safety has been tested. There's also the yuck factor.

"Cultured meat isn't natural, but neither is yogurt," says Matheny. "And neither, for that matter, is most of the meat we eat. Cramming 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and dosing them full of antibiotics isn't natural. I view cultured meat like hydroponic vegetables. The end product is the same, but the process used to make it is different. Consumers accept hydroponic vegetables. Would they accept hydroponic meat?"

Taste is another unknown variable. Real meat is more than just cells; it has blood vessels, connective tissue, fat, etc. To get a similar arrangement of cells, lab-grown meat will have to be exercised and stretched the way a real live animal's flesh would.

Kosnik is working on a way to create muscle grown without scaffolds by culturing the right combination of cells in a 3-D environment with mechanical anchors so that the cells develop into long fibers similar to real muscle.

The technology to grow a juicy steak, however, is still a decade or so away. No one has yet figured out how to grow blood vessels within tissue.

"In the meantime, we can use existing technologies to satisfy the demand for ground meat, which is about half of the meat we eat (and a $127 billion global market)," says Matheny.

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