I doubt it, but a group of designers recently highlighted how possible that concept would be should someone attempt to try it. Andrew Pelling, Orkan Telhan and Grace Knight made a DIY meal kit for lab-grown human meat that was recently nominated for Design of the Year by The Design Museum in London.
Called the Ouroboros Steak (named after the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail), the design is for a meal kit that would come with everything a person needs to culture cells from their own body and turn them into mini steaks. The design was commissioned for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Designs for Different Futures exhibition, which ended in March of this year.
To be clear: no one is growing human meat to sell in the grocery stores. The design is purely conceptual. According to Design Museum, it is “a critical commentary on the lab-grown meat industry and critiques the industry’s claims to sustainability.”
That critique is right on the mark, since lab-grown meat producers generally rely on the controversial Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) to produce their alt-meat wares. FBS is a byproduct that comes from the blood of cow fetuses. As this article from Slate from a few years back highlights, it’s a gruesome practice that involves killing a pregnant cow, removing the live fetus, then draining the latter of blood that eventually gets refined and turned into FBS.
The website for the Ouroboros Steak concept doesn’t specifically mention FBS, but notes, almost wryly, that, “Growing yourself ensures that you and your loved ones always know the origin of your food, how it has been raised and that its cells were acquired ethically and consensually.”
To be fair, a number of lab-grown meat companies acknowledge the ethics around FBS, and some are taking steps to find a different media for their products. When I spoke with BioBQ last month, CEO Katie Kam emphasized that her company does not use FBS and is instead looking for an alternative media for its lab-grown brisket. In Canada, a company called Future Fields is in the midst of developing what it calls “animal-free media,” which is just as it sounds.
Still, the FBS is the go-to media when it comes to cell-based meat, and calling out the ethics of it was a major goal of the Ouroboros Steak design: “As the lab-grown meat industry is developing rapidly, it is important to develop designs that expose some of its underlying constraints in order to see beyond the hype,” Pelling told Dezeen magazine.
He added that, “We are not promoting ‘eating ourselves’ as a realistic solution that will fix humans’ protein needs. We rather ask a question: what would be the sacrifices we need to make to be able to keep consuming meat at the pace that we are?”
Lab-grown meat is in the midst of an investment frenzy, not to mention the subject of much hype and news coverage. But it won’t be landing on grocery store shelves any time soon, in part because, in addition to being controversial, FBS is extremely expensive. A number of regulatory issues and questions around scalability also need to be resolved before we’re eating a cell-based Big Mac or nabbing a couple fillets for the backyard BBQ. Opinions differ around lab-grown meat’s timeline to the mainstream, with some claiming it will take just a couple years and others putting that mark “somewhere north of 15.” Some say it will never happen.
Wherever the reality falls, lab-grown meat producers will have to address the controversies surrounding their process process. That could mean explaining to consumers the gory details of FBS or, better yet, finding an alternative. Human meat won’t ever be that alternative, but the Ouroboros Steak project rightly reminds us we need to think twice about the ethics of innovation before barelling headlong into the hype.