Hi-tech burger provides perfect media diet

Tuesday 17 September 2013, 13:49

Rebecca Wells Rebecca Wells is a former BBC producer and a visiting lecturer at London's City University where she is studying for a PhD in food policy and journalism

Lab-grown burger Not only did the ‘launch event’ for the world’s first lab-meat beef burger last month get worldwide publicity, it got plenty of attention before it happened and then acres of analysis afterwards. The before, during and after coverage must have left the organisers feeling they’d done a good job. (And here’s another contribution to the cuttings file.)

Academics who analyse media coverage talk about ‘news values’. It’s a way of working out why some events get noticed while most do not. Media researchers Galtung and Ruge’s classic 1965 study of coverage of foreign affairs in the Norwegian news led to the formalisation of ‘news factors’. Theirs included things like ‘unexpectedness’ and ‘reference to elite people’. So how should we explain the extraordinary media appeal of the synthetic burger? Thinking in terms of news values can still be useful.  

For example, because of BSE and more recent horsemeat-sold-as-beef scandal, stories about beef have a particular resonance with the British press. And the history of GM in the UK makes novel foods (ie anything that can be prefixed with ‘Franken-‘) newsworthy.

That already puts a test-tube beef burger onto the news agenda.

In addition, the in vitro beef burger’s pre-publicity had all the right elements to, well, whet the media’s appetite. 

The ‘launch event’ was reported days in advance. The Independent on Sunday told us it would be at an “exclusive West London venue” in front of an “invited audience”. The high price of the burger (£250,000 according to the Mail Online, €250,000 according to the Guardian) was widely reported.

But who was the mysterious “anonymous businessman” (Mail Online) who had funded the research? The scientist behind it was also keeping a low profile: Dr Mark Post had apparently “chosen not to give any media interviews before the event”, but the Guardian still predicted the launch would make “culinary (and scientific) history”.  

So far so enticing. Then, on the morning of the launch, the Guardian revealed Google co-founder Sergey Brin as the mystery businessman. Brin (complete with Google Glass) featured in a video to mark the launch event.

The event itself - much more than a standard press conference - was brilliantly conceived as a live burger cook off and tasting. 

This science fiction/MasterChef/bush tucker trial hybrid combined with the OMG burger price tag had the press salivating for more. To top it, the launch event itself had elements of jeopardy: would the burger cook? Who would be brave enough to taste it? Does it come with chips? 

The Express couldn’t resist the “Frankenburger” tag and a little bit of the science behind the burger, which was apparently created from “20,000 tiny strips of meat grown from cow stem cells”.

The Mail Online, going with “Googleburger”, went overboard with lab/kitchen science: “The stem cells are cultivated in a nutrient broth, allowing them to proliferate 30-fold. Next they are combined with an elastic collagen and attached to Velcro 'anchor points' in a culture dish. Between the anchor points, the cells self-organise into chunks of muscle.”

The Telegraph (also going with “Frankenburger”) noted the well-orchestrated pre-publicity and the “10 beefy security guards” at the event but was determined not to be impressed: “On a stage that could have been straight off the set of Saturday Kitchen, Nina Hossain, the ITV newsreader, welcomed Prof Mark Post, the Dutch inventor of the burger, who carried it on a platter covered with a silver cloche. ‘This is a momentous occasion,’ trilled Hossain, trying to drum up excitement from an audience already looking bored.”  

The tasters - variously described as volunteers, foodies or, more accurately, in the Independent as nutritional scientist Hanni Rützler and author Josh Schonwald - were widely quoted. Some seemed to take delight in their measured comments. The Telegraph talked of their “sniffy verdict” while the Daily Mail said they were “hardly effusive” and the Independent that they were “underwhelmed”.  

The Week quoted the two tasters: “‘I was expecting the texture to be more soft,’ said Rützler. ‘There is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, but it's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.’ She added: ‘This is meat to me. It's not falling apart.’ Schonwald said: ‘The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger. What was consistently different was flavour’.”

It wasn’t just the beef and the science that attracted the press to this story. It also came with a large side order of ethics for commentators to, um, chew on.  

‘Brave Moo World’ punned the Sun with reference to the burger’s apparent potential to solve world hunger. Experts quoted by the newspaper talked about a reduction in carbon emissions associated with beef production and the suffering of animals.

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, quoted in the Guardian, saw a future for synthetic meat: "What you'll [eventually] see is a separation. On the one side you'll have your prime cuts; these will be special-occasion meats - if you want a steak or a joint or a whole chicken, you'll get those things, but less regularly than you do now. But if you want animal protein to make, perhaps, a cheap burger or a lasagne or something like that, then you'll go for alternatives, which may be in vitro meat or it may be insect protein."

Some were not convinced by these arguments. Joanna Blythman in her Mail Online column called the burger the “ultimate in dodgy produce” - and compared the science to GM technology: “It is a move towards the greater industrialisation of the food chain rather than towards a deeper embrace of the richness nature has to offer.”

The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh reflected the argument, quoting both animal welfare groups like Peta as supporters of synthetic meat and critics who say “technological fixes, whether it is lab-grown meat or GM crops, address the symptoms rather than the causes of world hunger”.

Several commentators agreed that if test-tube burgers are to stop world hunger then the price will have to come down a bit. The Express had helpfully done some research at the bookmakers and quoted odds of 4/6 of lab-grown burgers ending up on sale in the UK within 10 years.

I predict this is not the last we’ve heard of test-tube meat: however that burger tasted, as a story, you’d have to admit it was well done.

The College of Journalism’s science content 

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