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Is the World Ready for [Checks Notes] Cruelty-Free Zebra Meat?

VOW Foods, which is focusing its efforts on cultivated kangaroo meat, says that it wants to create a "modern Noah's Ark" of cells.

by Jelisa Castrodale
29 October 2019, 7:14am

Photo: Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Earlier this month, Aleph Farms, an Israeli cultivated meat company, announced that it had grown a small piece of meat on the International Space Station. Other than a couple of modifications for the zero-gravity environment, the process was very similar to the way that Aleph "grew" a steak prototype last December.

The company's still-complicated-sounding method involves taking stem cells from a living animal, combining them with growth factors that duplicate a cow's natural muscle regeneration process, and then using "bio-ink" and a special 3D printer to build the steak, layer by layer.

Although the company pretty much made the space beef just to prove that it could, Aleph Farms is serious about developing its technology—and its meat—as a viable method of feeding the world's ever-increasing population. "This cutting-edge research in some of the most extreme environments imaginable, serves as an essential growth indicator of sustainable food production methods that don't exacerbate land waste, water waste, and pollution," the company said in a statement.

A number of other cultivated meat companies are working to develop their own lab-grown versions of beef, pork, chicken, and fish, but one Australian company is basically asking "Why stop there?" VOW Foods, which is focusing its efforts on cultivated kangaroo meat, says that it wants to create a "modern Noah's Ark" of cells, a bio-diverse collection that would theoretically allow it to create sustainable and more ethical versions of pretty much any animal you want.

"Right now, the vast majority of meat consumed comes from just four or five animals. This is because we have developed the processes necessary to domesticate and process these particular animals on a mass scale," VOW's co-founder, Tim Noakesmith, told Inverse. "The question that we asked ourselves was: What are the odds that these animals contain the tastiest, most nutritionally rich food offerings?”

So, as Inverse wrote, that could mean that you could see a zebra in a zoo, and then get a "taste" of it from a lab-grown source. (And who among us hasn't walked through a zoo, mentally classifying each animal as an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert?)

There might be something to what VOW wants to do, if only because consumers might be more amenable to trying unconventional meats if it didn't require, you know, turning the Bronx Zoo into an ultra-exotic abattoir.

"Lab-grown beef may not live up to the reality of real beef, where if it’s something people have no expectations of, they may just want to try it. It’s a very unpredictable scenario," James Serpell, a professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told the site. (And he's right about the lab-grown beef: even Aleph Farms admitted that it had "a bit more work to do" when it came to the taste of its steak.)

Others have suggested that exotic animals will be one of the last things that cultivated meat companies will produce, and that the zebra steaks probably wouldn't be available until well after we'd all gotten comfortable with lab-grown versions of more conventional meats.

If you can't wait that long, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration already allows the sale of zebra meat. “Game meat, including zebra meat, can be sold [in the U.S.] as long as the animal from which it is derived is not on the endangered species list," an FDA spokesperson previously told TIME. "As with all foods regulated by FDA, it must be safe, wholesome, labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading, and fully compliant with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and its supporting regulations.”

In 2014, a United Kingdom-based meat and sports-supplement website called Muscle Food added zebra steaks to its online store—and they didn't last long. "When we launched horse meat we sold out of 1,100 fillet steaks in less than three hours," a Muscle Food spokesperson told VICE at the time. "The most recent addition to our exotic range is zebra steaks. Within five hours of launching, we sold out of just over 900 steaks." (Oh yeah, the same site used to sell a product called "A Bag of Horse," because that's exactly what it was. That item is no longer available, although there are still listings for horse steaks and horse burgers. Both of them are currently sold out.)

So maybe we all would get down on some lab-grown zebra steaks. And, man, we can't wait until those are made in space, too.

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meat
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aleph farms
vow foods