Can meat-eaters get their juicy steaks without a single cow ever being killed? That's the dream of one animal rights group, and they're putting their money where their tofu-and-sprouts-loving mouths are.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is no longer just encouraging people to avoid meat. Now the organization is offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can create meat in a lab.
Earlier this week, PETA offered the prize to the first person to produce commercially viable in vitro meat at a competitive price. Simply put, in vitro, or "cultured," meat is created from cells taken from an animal. The cells are then grown in a lab as meat without the messy process of raising and killing livestock.
"There are always going to be people who say, I don't care. I want my steak," PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk told ABCNEWS.com. "Fine. Let's escalate the commercial production of lab-grown steak so you can have the steak where it won't hurt anyone."
While Newkirk likes the meat because it allows meat-eaters to partake without harming animals, nutritionists and even animal rights activists believe the potential innovation could face its own challenges, both ethically and commercially.
Researchers have been investigating the possibilities of lab-grown meat for years but have yet to make the kind of advances that could bring something like mass-grown lab meat to market. Newkirk hopes that the prize will be just the kind of thing that could kick-start research that she says is going on at NASA and at Scandinavian universities.
"So we thought, let's just light a fire," Newkirk said. "People are stunned we would do this, but it's practical."
There is a limit to the prize. Winners would have to put their plan into motion by 2012.
Whether test-tube meat can become a reality in just four years is questionable, according to researchers.
"What it's going to take is a lot of money to develop the technique to do this," said Douglas McFarland, a South Dakota State University professor who researches cellular muscle growth and co-wrote a 2005 paper on cultured meat. "Others have done it with small, very small strains of muscle tissue. ... But with something like what PETA is looking at, it would have to be a large 3-D structure."
McFarland first became interested in cultured meat for its interstellar potential.
"My interest back when we wrote that paper was in having a protein source for long-term space travel. ... So we could maybe have plants providing nutrients to grow muscle cells. Muscle protein is an extremely efficient and nutritious product," McFarland said. "Engineering protein with muscle could be used for a source of protein for people who have allergies."
Dr. Vladimir Mironov, Tan Chin Tuan Fellow at Nanyang Technical University and an in vitro meat researcher, said it's not the technology that will be a problem, but rather funding for research.
"I think it is a right move in right direction. But $1 million for development technology at industrial scale is not realistic. It will probably take 10 years and at least $50 to 100 million to develop this technology at industrial scale," Dr. Vladimir Mironov, the Tan Chin Tuan Fellow at Nanyang Technical University and an engineered meat researcher, wrote in an email. "It is naive to believe that at least initially the price for tissue engineered meat will be competitive. It will be very, very, very expensive."