LONDON – The world’s first beef burger created from stem cells has a texture that’s closer to cake than steak.

The burger, fried in a public unveiling in London Monday, lacks the fattiness of regular meat and could be described as an “animal-protein cake,” according to Josh Schonwald, a Chicago- based author and one of two tasting volunteers.

The 5-ounce burger, which cost more than $332,000 to produce, was developed by Mark Post of Maastricht University with funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Post is among scientists including those at Modern Meadow and New Harvest who are experimenting with ways to grow meat in labs as an alternative to raising livestock, which contributes 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land, according to an Oxford University study. Post’s team developed the burger over five years.

“We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Post said at the event in London today. “This is a technology that can be transferred to other animals as long as they have stem cells in their skeletal muscle. So it can be transferred to animals like fish, chicken, and lamb.”

Taste and texture

Schonwald, the author of a book called “The Taste of Tomorrow,” said the burger had a cake-like quality because of the lack of fat content and falls somewhere between a Boca veggie burger and a McDonald’s burger. Hanni Ruetzler, a food scientist and the other tasting volunteer, said the surface was crunchy and the inside was “very close to meat,” though lacking juiciness. Beet juice and saffron were added to the burger to enhance color.

Post said he’s still working on the twin challenges of improving taste and growing fat. Commercial production could begin in a decade or two, according to Post, whose work on cultured beef began in 2008.

The muscle stem cells, taken by harmless biopsy from living cows, are fed and nurtured so they multiply to create muscle tissue. The cells grow into strands, and 20,000 of them get combined to create one burger. One sample of cells is enough to create as much as 20,000 tons of meat in the lab, he said.

Post used fetal bovine serum, taken from the blood of calf fetuses, to multiply the cells after testing as many as 10 alternative nutrients that proved to be inferior. The cost of fetal bovine serum, the most expensive component of the process, is currently the main obstacle to mass production, said Neil Stephens, who studies developments in in-vitro meat research at Cardiff University’s Cesagen research center and School of Social Sciences.

Serum Cost

Fetal bovine serum, also used to make vaccines, costs about $250 per liter, with as many as three fetuses required to produce each liter, according to a recent paper published in the journal Regenerative Medicine.

Any association with genetically modified foods is unwarranted, according to Post. “Cultured beef is normal beef,” he said. “It consists of cow cells.”

Lab-grown meat shouldn’t have any safety concerns and may actually be preferable to what’s available today, said Sandra Stringer, senior microbiologist at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, England.

“We can see no reasons why this product would be less safe than conventional meat,” she said. “It is likely that it will be produced in sterile conditions and so could be much less prone to microbial contamination.”

Experts say new ways of producing meat are needed to satisfy growing carnivorous appetites without exhausting resources. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts global meat consumption will double as more people in developing countries can afford it. Raising animals destined for the dinner table takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land.

The animal rights group PETA has thrown its support behind the lab-meat initiative.

“As long as there’s anybody who’s willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this,” said Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder. “Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops,” she said.

If the product is ever ready for market, national food authorities will likely require data proving the lab meat is safe; there is no precedent. Some experts said officials might regulate the process used to make such meat, similar to how they monitor beer and wine production.

(Bloomberg News and The Associated Press contributed to this report)