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Faking it: meat substitutes take centre stage

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Friday, 11 January 2013


Renowned philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer has given his tick of approval for a non-meat mania that is being touted as this year's hottest culinary trend. Global marketing group JWT predicted faux meat - non meat products designed to look and taste like meat - on its "Next Big Thing" list for 2013 (The Age, Jan 2). At the same time, laboratories are racing to produce the first batch of edible, aesthetic, commercial "lab meat".

At the Minding Animals Conference in Utrecht, in July 2012, Singer announced the only way forward for animal liberation was the successful production and marketing of fake – or lab grown - meat. He realised that a vast number of carnivores would not be satisfied with munching on tofu shaped like chicken nuggets. They wanted the "real thing" even if that animal flesh was grown in a vat.

I had already sniffed the facon in the wind at the Minding Animals conference, where I was presenting a paper on human-animal hybrids in science fiction. I noticed factional fights between vegans, vegetarians and fair-weather carnivores as to what constituted an ethically and morally species-sound diet. (Should Academics Eat Their Subject Matter?)

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Those concerned about the food on offer in Utrecht would have been happier at `De Vegetarische Slager' - the Vegetarian Butcher located in The Hague. Their chicken pieces (industrially processed soy with a handful of additives) have earned many a glowing references in vegan and culinary blogs.

As these and other alternative protein products are made to look and taste like meat – such as facon, tofurky, sausages (should that be fauxsages?) vegetarian jerky and vegan jerky, beef patties and "bacon bits" - I wonder at the enthusiasm of non-meat eaters to embrace the fleshy world. It's a bit like eschewing the sun and opting for a fake tan. Then again, maybe it is simply wanting to have your meatball and eat it too; and, like the pale skinned, wanting to blend in socially without suffering the consequences (or in meat's case, without the animal or environment suffering for your desire for that kebab). Throw another soy protein snag on the barbie, mate.

These faux meat products actually have a tradition going back centuries as in the case of recipes for seitan (a wheat gluten) to cater for religious non meat diets. There are now many more reasons, apart from religious, why people adopt a non meat lifestyle. According to CNN (Aug 13, 2012), research from the University of Oxford, published in 2011, estimated that lab-grown meat produces 78-96% lower greenhouse emissions than conventionally produced meat within the EU.

Concern about the environment and health issues as well as animal ethics leads the way with Melbourne's alternative fast food chain The Lord of the Fries. On their website they say the reason they don't even use cheese curds on their Canadian fries is because they couldn't source any without animal rennet. Their philosophy (apparently sung to the tune of Faith No More's 'We Care A Lot') is "we care a lot about the welfare of all the folks and animals". Yet even the LOTF burgers look just like meat burgers.

First, let us be clear that there is faux meat and then there is in vitro meat. Vegan butchers such as Sydney's 'Spoon's' proudly call themselves a "purveyor of fine faux meats". They are offering fare made from ingredients such as organic soy, flour and polenta. Their "traditional sausages" are described mouth wateringly as "a firm meaty style vegan sausage with robust flavours and a hint of chilli". It's a long way from the tin of "nut meat" that I valiantly attempted to nudge into an edible substance when I first left home.

Given that the production of lab grown meat must harvest animal cells somewhere along the line, would such hard core vegans have ethical issues with in vitro meat?

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Singer had previously discussed the merits of in-vitro meat with the media, telling Wired Magazine in 2009 that, ethically, "it's the same with road kill."

Singer explained: "If they are only genetically modifying the meat at a cellular level, I don't have any problem. It's not something that is going to harm any animals. I hope the day will come that people won't want to eat meat from animals that have suffered for our benefit and have contributed to climate change."

The lab meat Singer is talking about has been created by scientists using animal cell cultures. Although much publicised research is taking place in The Netherlands and in the US to produce fake meat, there is so far no clear winner.

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About the Author

Evelyn Tsitas is the co-author of the parenting book Handle With Care, a PhD student at RMIT University, Melbourne, and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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