Projected lab-grown burger price has already dropped dramatically

The cost of the €250,000 burger grown in The Netherlands' Maastricht University would be dramatically lower if produced on a mass scale.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

Burger image by Agustín Nieto, CC BY 2.0

While lab-grown burgers are desirable for many reasons -- the absence of slaughter, the savings in land use, water and energy required for livestock, the reduction in greenhouse gases -- the prototype produced by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in The Netherlands last year seemed prohibitive.

This was not least because of its price tag -- one burger cost around €250,000, or around $273,000 at time of writing, to make.

That, at least, is one hurdle that may not last long: according to a recent interview with Australia's ABC News, the production of lab-grown beef would cost significantly less if scaled up to mass levels in the future -- around $65 per kilogram ($30/lb) -- or around $9.10 per 140-gram patty, as opposed to €250,000.

Each patty, Professor Post said last year, is composed of around 20,000 thin strands of muscle tissue grown in culture dishes.

A small piece of muscle tissue is required from which to grow these strands to begin with, and each small piece of muscle "can produce 10,000 kilos of meat", Professor Post told ABC News.

However, while the cost of production would be lower -- because the research involved in constructing the method of production has already been accomplished -- there are still some hurdles to overcome.

For a start, while the production method works, it is slow and still only viable on a small scale. For consumer-level volumes, production will need to become much faster and more efficient -- preferably without using growth hormones, which will then end up in the finished burger -- and with which many consumers will be uncomfortable.

The current method also uses foetal calf serum as a medium in which to grow the meat cells. The muscle cells taken from the cow are placed in this serum, which encourages the cells to grow. However, this serum is made from the blood of cow foetuses, which is collected from abattoirs; this may not produce enough serum for large-scale lab-grown meat production anyway, but if the aim is to decrease the number of animals killed, a different medium will need to be found.

And, of course, there's the matter of taste: according to the burger's tasters last year, food writer Josh Schonwald and nutrition researcher Hanni Rützler, the absence of fat in the lab-grown meat resulted in a lack of juiciness and flavour. The Cultured Beef team is working on rectifying this by growing fat cells in their laboratory.

However, with all the obstacles yet to be surmounted, the commercial, lab-grown burger is yet some time away.

"I do think that in 20 or 30 years from now we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef," Professor Post said.

Updated April 8, 6.10 a.m. AEST: Corrected price on advice from Maastricht University, clarified that cost is for future scaled production.