Real Or Fake? New Meat Alternatives Strive To Make It Hard To Tell

Mar 8, 2012

HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- Northwest-born Gardenburger and Tofurky are vegetarian alternatives to meat. They sell well, but they don't fool any meat lovers. This year, food companies from here and abroad aim to debut fake meat products that come closer than ever to mimicking the real thing. Dutch researchers claim they can grow hamburger in the laboratory from just a few bovine stem cells. But are people really craving a Petri-patty? Correspondent Tom Banse explores that question.

The price tag of $330,000 undoubtedly makes it the most expensive hamburger patty ever produced. It's happening at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Researcher Mark Post and his team started with a muscle biopsy from a cow and are now culturing clumps of cells in Petri dishes.

Post: "We have committed ourselves to make of couple thousand of these small tissues and then assemble them into a hamburger."

The Dutch appear to be the most advanced of several teams around the world trying to grow meat without killing animals. On a swing through the Northwest, Post said he wants to demonstrate that the world's rising appetite for meat could be satisfied in a more efficient and environmentally benign way.

Post: "It's a combination of two things, care for environment and food production for the world. And second is just a generic interest in life transforming technologies."

Post admits he still has to prove the Petri-patties can be made cost-effectively and flavorful. He hopes there's an appetite among consumers lured by claims such as "no animal has suffered to make this product."

But a test tube burger? The idea is totally unappealing to Seth Tibbott of Hood River, Oregon.

Tibbott: "I think it sounds still pretty disgusting to me."

To be fair, Tibbott is a biased source. The vegan entrepreneur founded Turtle Island Foods. That's the company best known for making Tofurky.

Tibbott: "This is some of our flagship product being made, the Tofurky roast, where the stuffing is inside..."

Tibbott's son in law and vice president says mimicking the fiber and texture of poultry is the hardest thing to do. Jaime Athos says it's a worthwhile pursuit, but...

Athos: "Making little incremental improvements in the product quality is really the way you achieve that. Maybe there's going to be a leap forward sometime, but I don't see it yet on the near horizon."

Here's the thing... The folks at Tofurky estimate about 3 percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian. They don't necessarily want fake meat that is authentic-tasting. Seth Tibbott sees a much bigger market among mainstream consumers. These people might try meatless alternatives if those products more closely resembled real meat.

Tibbott: "In the industry, they're called flexitarians or they're called 'sometimes vegetarians.' Depending on what study you look at, they're 30 to 40 percent of America."

Out Tibbott's office window, he can watch contractors build a new Tofurky factory along the Columbia River. It will allow the fast-growing company to triple its production starting next year.

Meanwhile, several competing and secretive start ups are promising breakthrough meat substitutes. One is a fake chicken made of soy that its developer says not only tastes like chicken, but also has the same look and texture.

Stanford University professor Patrick Brown founded a different company. His food scientists manipulate plant proteins and oils in an undisclosed process. Brown's theory is that economies of scale and price are the keys to winning over meat lovers.

Brown: "What we're intending to do is basically produce stuff that will compete by being substantially cheaper and every bit as good and essentially indistinguishable to a consumer who loves meat or dairy. That's the only way I think you're really going to win in the market."

Brown recently gave a talk in Vancouver, BC where he portrayed the livestock industry as "a sitting duck for disruptive technology."

The director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association responds that it’s the fake meat entrepreneurs who are more likely to face a "rocky road" with consumers. Jack Field says he's confident "real beef will be what's for dinner now and into the future." I'm Tom Banse reporting.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network