Google Grows a Burger

Google Grows a Burger

If consumers rejected so-called "pink slime" being included in their hamburger, what makes Google think they'll want to eat one grown in a petri dish?

Earlier this week, a research lab that was funded by the search king's co-founder Sergey Brin, cooked up a burger that was grown in a lab from the stem cells of a cow. The future of fast food may be very different than you may have previously thought.

Getting slimed
As you might recall, Disney's ABC News division manufactured a controversy last year over the meat-processing industry adding filler to ground beef that they termed "pink slime." It made it sound artificial and dangerous, and they hammered home the threat for three straight days. The uproar it created caused schools to drop beef that contained the product, as did grocery store chains like Kroger, Safeway, and SUPERVALU, which all declared they wouldn't sell beef if it contained the product.

The only problem with their reasoning is that "pink slime" is actually ground beef. The USDA has said there's nothing unsafe about it, and that it's been used for years without any reported cases of anyone getting sick because of it.

Pink slime is the bit of meat that's left on the bones after processing, which, if heated slightly, could be easily removed and not wasted. That should be considered a benefit, but ABC's reporting caused one producer, Beef Products, to lose 80% of its business, and close three of its four factories. A second producer, AFA Foods, was forced into bankruptcy. Beef Products is now suing ABC for $1.2 billion in damages because of its false coverage.

A slippery slope
Google's venture into the lab has some worthy goals, such as being able to produce beef without the need for killing cows, using less energy, less land, and less water. While it looks similar to ground beef you'd find in the store -- with or without pink slime added -- the real value of whether it might catch on is taste, and at least from the first test-tube burger, it comes up a bit short.

Regardless of whether adding salt and pepper could improve the taste, I think consumers would be a bit resistant to the new beef -- aside from having to get over it being lab-produced -- because we like our beef to be beef. When McDonald's introduced the McLean Deluxe, it was a huge flop for the burger joint because it removed the fat and replaced it with water, changing the taste. As any chef worth his, er, salt will tell you, the taste is in the fat. A well-marbled steak will taste infinitely better than a lean one.

Although I support stem cell research for the cure of disease, or even the regeneration of body parts (scientists have grown an ear from stem cells), I'm not sure I'm exactly excited at the thought of food grown from them. I'm leery as it is about genetically modified seeds; lab-made burgers really raises my hackles -- let alone my gag reflex.

Google and its co-founder Sergey Brin are funding some far-out ideas these days, from driverless cars, to Google Glasses, mining asteroids, to private space trips to the moon (OK, I'd be down with that). Some are likely closer to fruition than synthetic hamburgers, which are expected to be on store shelves within a decade, if not sooner -- but that's only if they can avoid getting slimed.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google, McDonald's, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, McDonald's, Supervalu, and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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