Shmeat is the dominant euphemism for in vitro meat, also known as lab meat, fleshy foodstuff created from animal stem cells placed in a nutrient-rich medium to grow and reproduce on spongy sheets (sheet + meat = shmeat).
Shmeat mimics meat and can be cooked and eaten but involves no animal killing. Scientists have already conducted some successful shmeat experiments, but we're still a few years and a lot more funding away from picking up a pound of shmeat at the local shmutcher.
That's where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals comes in. PETA recently announced a contest on its website offering a $1-million prize to the first scientist able to produce and bring to market in vitro chicken meat by June 30, 2012.
It might surprise some to hear PETA advocating meat of any kind, but PETA has never been against meat per se; it's the suffering and killing—the “unethical treatment”—involved in producing meat that's the group's beef. And shmeat done right, they argue, has the potential to eliminate the raising of animals for human consumption, while allowing those with a taste for tissue to continue enjoying their favorite meaty delicacies.
Sounds like a win/win, but there are obstacles to replacing meat with shmeat, not least of which is widespread distaste at the very thought of a Frankenfurter or test-tube steak. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan sums it up when he says, “Throwupthrowupthrowup… just the thought of eating test tube meat—god, it's painful to even type it.”
I find myself nodding at everything everyone says about this: I am precariously poised right on the fence that divides shmeat lovers from detractors: a devout vegetarian who welcomes anything that would reduce the slaughter but also a critic of heavily processed, laboratory-sourced foods.
Must. Examine. Shmeat. More. Closely.
On the environmental blog Gristmill, foodie and author Lou Bendrick weighs the pros and cons nicely, even somewhat objectively, albeit with a pretty obvious anti-shmeat bias. In addition to visceral revulsion (the kind that always makes Stephen Colbert wretch at his desk), Bendrik identifies seven additional shmeat negatives, which I'll list and then comment on:
1. Safety risk. Bendrick cites holistic farmer and author Joel Salatin's objections to the unnaturalness of mass producing lab-made meat: “Even if we could make shmeat, how do we know that whatever we create is not going to become a technological master?” Salatin offers the analogy of genetically modified vegetables: “As far as I know there is no genetically pure corn in the world because of pollen drift.” He has a point: We don't know the long-term safety implications. On the other hand, shmeat is unlikely to breed with animals because shmeat has no reproductive organs, and even if it did, shmeat is ugly and no animal would want to breed with it.
2. Could be bad for the environment. Hypothetical, but we can assume it would take a lot of energy to produce shmeat. Salatin, on the other hand, claims that energy-efficient farming methods “can raise three times the beef per acre as any other farm,” making his method preferable to even shmeat. If only we could just be nicer to the animals we kill to eat! Sorry, dude. Vegetarianism is way better for the environment, but I digress. The verdict will soon be in: Oxford University is comparing shmeat to conventional meat in terms of energy use. Results will be available in February, and I plan to post them on CityBeat's Last Blog on Earth, so check back in eight weeks if you're already a potential shmeatie® or just shmeat-curious.
3. Will create more distance between humans and nature. Bendrick quotes slow-foodist Josh Viertel, who considers shmeat “a technology that's just going to give more to companies and create a larger distance between us [and our food].” Everyone knows the difference between buying a fish sandwich at McDonald's versus stabbing a dolphin to death. I agree that distance can be bad in food production. But shmeat has no natural antecedent. Couldn't we take a field trip to the lab?
4. Not necessarily humane for animals. Scientists use animal-fetus blood to make the nutrient-rich growing solution for shmeat. Not exactly a vegetarian's wet dream. A veggie serum exists, but it's expensive and genetically modified, so it might be a tough sell. Still, if the veggie plasma could be made cheaper, it's a lot better for animals than chaining them in a box and slitting their throats.
5. They're gonna force it on ya. Bendrick thinks the FDA will approve shmeat without input from you and me: It will enter the food system unlabeled and minimally regulated. “You'll eat shmeat without even knowing it,” she worries. This sucks, but is it worse than the pig anuses they put in your bologna that you don't know about? Just a thought.
6. It's not healthy. It will be heavily processed crap. True, but is killing a cow with a brain injection à la No Country for Old Men not a process? Is a chemical process worse than a cruel and violent one?
7. Not really pure vegetarian. In other words, it starts with animal cells, so vegans will write the stuff off as perpetuating “meat addiction.” On the other hand, animals don't have to suffer to give up a cell. It's far less intrusive than taking their milk, for example.
As you can see, I come off like a shmeat defender. Even though every strike against shmeat that Bendrick makes, I ultimately agree with her; even though shmeat sounds no better than Spam or Twinkies or any other vile, lab-produced “food” product, I still find it better than eating real animals that have faces, hearts, brains, children and so forth. So, bring on the shmeat. It's better than unnecessary mass killing. Just don't make me eat it.