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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Ouroboros Steak: Where do you draw the line with cell-based meat?

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Ouroboros Steak — meat made from human cells — critiques the cell-based meat industry’s sustainability claims. But the undertones of cannibalism can’t be ignored.

It’s getting ridiculous. Call it art, mediation, speculative concept, whatever. The new exhibition at London’s Design Museum features Ouroboros Steak. It’s cell-based meat. Made from the cells of — wait for it — humans.

First appearing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the project is the brainchild of Andrew Pelling, Grace Knight, and Orkan Telhan. The human cell-based meat is intended to be a commentary on the wider cell-based meat industry’s claims of environmental sustainability.

Cell-based/cultured/lab-grown/in vitro/clean meat has been screaming its way to the top of the alt-meat industry. Its growth has been rapid, monumental and well-documented. And it’s not hard to see why: you’re not technically killing an animal, and it’s much better for the environment — apparently.

But that second claim has long been a bone of contention between scientists and industry leaders. A Frontiers study revealed it may be more climate-friendly in the short term, but there’s a long way to go before making any claims about the longer-term effects.

That’s not the point here though. The most common way of producing cell-based meat is using something called a foetal bovine serum. It’s harvested from the foetal blood of slaughtered pregnant cows. Ouroboros Steak is made using human serum produced from unusable byproducts of blood banks. Talk about tasteful.

‘Ouroboros’ means ‘tail devourer’ in Greek; it’s an ancient term referring to a snake eating its own tail. So the reference is understandable. But it’s also questionable. Are we celebrating cannibalism now? Are we trying to normalise eating meat to such a degree that no animal is off our table?

Cultured meat is touted as the future of the meat industry. It’s not even commonplace in practice yet. This concept of human cell-based meat looks at a post-clean meat world.

The Design Museum exhibit is “a DIY meal kit for growing gourmet steak from one’s own cells. It comes as a starter kit of tools, ingredients and instructions that enable users to culture their own cells into mini-steaks, without causing harm to animals.” But who amongst us really wants to come home from an exhausting workday and eat our own cells as our weeknight dinner?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a bold piece of art. It’s a comment on hypocrisy in the most twisted way possible, and that’s fascinating. The artists are looking at the future of food, perusing its sustainability models and asking the question: “Are we doing enough, or is this bullshit?”

But the cannibalistic undertones don’t help their case. You can appreciate the concept all you like, but you can’t shy away from that aspect. You can’t ignore the fact that we’re talking about humans eating human cells. Add the “unusable blood bank byproducts” information into the mix and you’ve got yourself a real doozy.

And sure, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the designers want you to be disgusted. Maybe it’s what will draw your attention to their PSA that cell-based meat isn’t as sustainable as it claims to be. But surely we’ve got to draw the line somewhere?

Ouroboros Steak is nominated for a product design award at the Design Museum. And while it speaks volumes about the expansive technological breakthroughs and innovative thought processes behind alt-meat in a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek manner, it’s not a food future many would like to see.

Anay
Anay Mridul
Anay is a journalism graduate from City, University of London. He has been a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan this year, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.