Given the choice, would you pick meatballs or cancer treatment?

In vitro meat is an interesting development. Along the way, it exposes the utterly absurd ethics of some animal rights organizations.

The start-up company Memphis Meats has just presented this video, in which you see the pan-frying of a single meatball. The unusual part: it is in vitro-grown. From muscle cells. A meat ball made from real beef, for which no animal had to be butchered. Several competitors worldwide are trying to develop “in vitro meat”. As of yet, it is expensive to produce. However, it is realistic to hope that the costs can be reduced to those of conventional meat one day. This research is enthusiastically supported by certain animal rights organizations. Understandably so. Meat consumption is by far the number one reason why humans kill animals. Without counting fish, that is 784 million/yr just in Germany alone. For comparison, less than three million die in animal research. High quality meat without dead animals – for many that’s a dream.

However, the media coverage of the in vitro meatball, and also the in vitro patty two years earlier, mostly neglects one detail. These tasty tidbits weren’t completely free from dead animals. In order to culture muscle cells in vitro we need one critical ingredient: fetal calf serum (FCS). FCS is derived from the blood of unborn calves when pregnant cows are butchered. It contains nutrients and growth factors, which many cells require for growth in culture. Not all of these nutrients and factors have been identified. This is why we still don’t have satisfactory replacements for FCS.

This is not necessarily a perpetual problem of in vitro meat. Given sufficient basic research, scientists will eventually identify the critical factors in FCS and could synthesize them. In vitro FCS, if you will. This would not only make cultured meat a truly vegan dish but also be of tremendous use for research involving in vitro methods. Synthetic ingredients are much easier to control than those derived from animals, which can vary in concentration and quality. Artificial FCS would certainly improve the quality of in vitro research. A win-win scenario. However, we are simply not there yet. If we don’t want to put the development of in vitro meat on hold for the time being we will have to make do with FCS for now. Of course, this is true also for FCS usage for all other cell culture work.

For the sake of achieving the goal of “in vitro meat,” some animal right organizations condone the use of FCS. This is a comprehensible case of ethical balancing. The lives of animals are sacrificed today, so we can work toward a valuable goal which justifies this in the future.

My question to these organizations, however, is this: why do you not accept this argument when we use FCS for researching cancer? Why do you not accept this argument when we kill mice for researching Alzheimer’s disease? You find uncompromising rejection of such research by the hundreds if you Google “animal research.” “No pregnant animal shall be killed” (reminder: that means there is no FCS). “Even if there were no alternatives for using animals (…), animal research would still be unacceptable for ethical reasons,” and other variations of ‘research that requires the use of animals must be put on hold until alternative methods are available.’ Digest that. According to those organizations, the development of a guilt-free meatball justifies something that the development of cancer medication does not. A burger has higher ethical value than saving a human life. That’s hair-raising.

We have remarked earlier on the absurdity of the fact that 57% of the German population indicates to oppose medical animal research, while at the same time just 9% are willing to refrain from eating meat. If my ethics lead to such absurd priorities, it should be a clear sign for me that there are things I should think over. This is also true for organizations. You are welcome to read up relevant background information on our page. We are also always willing to answer further questions and to discuss ethical problems. Contact us here or comment on our Facebook page.