Dan Murphy: Zebra On The Menu?

VOW Foods to market cell-cultured Zebra meat. ( San Diego Zoo )

An Australian firm is planning to market ‘cruelty-free’ zebra meat —a product cultured from a cellular substrate, not actually harvested from the iconic African species. Two words: Good luck.

A news release this week breathlessly — or maybe cluelessly — announced the launch of a project to develop culture zebra meat.

As an attention getting post guaranteed to work wonders as online click bait, it was a huge success.

As a plausible product development launch, it’s so far out in left field that if it were being conducted in a ballpark, the technicians involved would be stationed somewhere out in the parking lot.

The company in question, VOW Foods, has allegedly develop cultivated kangaroo meat, and its officials have said that they intend to create a “modern Noah’s Ark” of cellular material.

As previously noted in this space, this technology involves taking stem cells from an animal, then replicating those cells in a nutrient-rich solution that includes growth factors to accelerate the muscle regeneration process, and using what amounts to a special 3D printer to layer the resulting tissue to approximate (most of) muscle meat’s sensory and organoleptic characteristics.

The goal, as all of the entrepreneurs and their investors in the alt-meat category love to insist, is to save the planet by developing a sustainable food production technology, one with less of an impact on energy, water and land use, while also mitigating the potentially polluting activities associated with conventional animal husbandry.

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

How about, like, phenomenally high odds?

The reason those five animals — assuming he’s talking about cattle, pigs, sheep chickens and turkeys — produce the vast majority of meat for human consumption is because they are the tastiest and most nutritionally rich!

Not to mention the most productive in terms of raising/herding/feeding/managing.

As cute as a horse — of course

Before continuing, it’s important to point out that despite Noakesmith’s standard line about saving the world with cellular technology, let’s be clear: The goal for VOW is more ROI than SOS.

More Bill Gates than Norman Borlaug.

Nothing wrong with making money — although when corporate profits rises to Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos levels, it starts to feel kind of obscene.

But investors wouldn’t be making bets on any alt-meat start-ups if dollar signs weren’t dancing in their heads. The projected eco-benefits of cellular technology, at least at this point, are about market positioning, rather than environmental salvation.

But back to Project Zebra.

Consider for a moment the angst and the outcry over the 2007 congressional ban on the slaughter of horses in the United States (which was renewed by Congress last year), even though there is a proven market for horse meat in China and France.

I mean, the French already embrace the joie de la cuisine of snails and frogs. Is it such a leap to include horsemeat?

But the reason Americans were troubled by horse slaughter, as was voiced by virtually every one of the chorus of critics attacking the remaining packing plants that were still handling horses at the time, was a connection with the animals themselves. Horses are beautiful, sensitive creatures who should be cared for until death do they depart — and then … well, it was never clear what the ideal disposition of a 1,200-pound carcass was supposed to be, but suffice to say that anti-horse slaughter proponents were adamant that the did NOT belong on the menu.


So how does that differ from public opinion about zebras? What, they’re less attractive, less of a sensitive animal deserving of a lesser fate than a horse?

Obviously, not.

Of course, VOW Foods is planning to market cell-derived zebra “meat,” but truth is, no matter how that product is created or sourced, people are going to envision the actual animal, not some overgrown test tube in a food factory somewhere.

And as for Noakesmith’s question asking if zebra is among the tastiest meats?

Yeah … if you’re an African lion! Then it’s as tasty as it gets.

For those who don’t hunt down wildlife for our sustenance, probably not so much.

At the end of the day, zebras belong in the Serengeti, or alternatively, in some enriched habitat in a zoo or animal preserve, not on the center of someone’s plate.

They’re the very last entry in every kid’s storybook alphabetically listing the animals of the world.

And likewise, the last animal any company should be attempting to serve up for dinner.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator

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