TORONTO — The future of food may be the stuff of dreams for those vegans and vegetarians secretly pining for a bacon cheeseburger washed down with a creamy milkshake.
Science is poised to alleviate the guilt associated with such feasts by changing how meat, milk and other animal products arrive on dinner plates, with some companies aiming to almost eliminate the need for hens, cows and other animals in the food-supply chain.
Hen-less egg whites, cow-less milk and practically pig-less meat are projected to appear in grocery stores as early as five years from now in an effort to reduce factory farming via cultured food.
"Animal culture right now is extremely detrimental to animals, human health and the environment," said Isha Datar, CEO of New Harvest, a non-profit U.S. research organization that's funding this type of innovation.
Animals often suffer in factory farm conditions, humans can be exposed to viral outbreaks like swine flu from farm animals, and an abundance of land and water is required to produce a comparatively small amount of meat, the company points out in a takedown of the farming status quo on its website.
"We need to start thinking about ways in which we can decrease our dependency on it," Datar said.
The solution as New Harvest sees it? Cellular agriculture or, more simply put, harvesting the animal products many humans drool over from cell cultures rather than whole animals.
Some, like milk, can be made using microbes, like yeast or bacteria — no animals required. Others, like beef, can be grown using living or previously living cells from animals.
One group of researchers made a cultured beef hamburger this way, starting by extracting muscle tissue from a cow, according to a description of cultured beef research funded by New Harvest.
They separated muscle cells from the tissue. Each cell can spawn one trillion copies, and these copies merge into microscopic myotubes and eventually form into small pieces of new muscle tissue.
One piece of muscle tissue from a cow can create more than one trillion strands of replica muscle tissue. Those are layered together to create beef, like the patty these researchers cooked and tasted on live TV in August 2013.
That hamburger cost about $475,000 Cdn to create, but companies are working hard to make cultured agriculture more affordable.
Clara Foods, for example, is attempting to create a hen-free egg white. CEO Arturo Elizondo considers it a perfect food — lots of protein with virtually no fat, cholesterol or carbs.
While the company is still tinkering with its product, Elizondo said he has sampled several prototypes.
It will take some time to scale up production, he said, and the company is trying to bring its egg whites to a lower price point than what a dozen eggs typically sell for.
While these futuristic groceries may seem like great science fiction fodder, some items are between five and 15 years from hitting the market, said Datar.
It could happen even sooner if organizations like New Harvest are able to secure more funding for cultured food research.
The first animal-free animal product available for mass consumption will likely be milk, Datar said. Muufri recently offered its latest milk prototype, made without cows, to taste-testers, who reacted positively to the milk's texture.
The egg white creation from Clara Foods will likely be available to consumers in a few years, Elizondo projects.
Another company, Memphis Meats, came up with a cultured meat meatball last month. It plans to create barbecue staples like burgers, hot dogs and sausages as well. Grocery store shoppers will be able to buy its first line of these products in fewer than five years, the company projects.
"This is absolutely the future of meat," said CEO Uma Valeti in a statement released at the meatball's reveal.
"We plan to do to animal agriculture what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable."
Clara Foods, Muufri and Memphis Meat are affiliated with New Harvest.
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Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press