Cassandra 2012 Headline Animator

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Test Tube Burgers - Nothing New Under the Sun!

Forty years ago the company I then worked for produced a meat substitute called KESP. It received a considerable amount of publicity at the time including an appearance on the BBC's flagship Tomorrow's World.

The company specialised in the manufacture of synthetic textile fibres and the basic principal behind KESP was that a paste was made using soya flour which was then spun into a fibre in exactly the same way as nylon or polyester fibres are made. This simulated the fibrous nature of meat and the fibres where bonded together to form meaty chunks and even - if my recollection of the Tomorrow's World programme is correct - a whole ham.

This article in the New Scientist describes the 1972 press conference at which the product was launched. The company's employees were able to purchase frozen chicken and beef flavoured chunks and mince from the company shop. These could then be used in stews, curries and Bolognese sauce. In due course the company sold the production technology and the entire pilot plant to a food company. I can find no reference to its continued production and searching for the KESP brand name reveals that it is defunct.

Interestingly a research paper published in 1975 dealing with synthetic meat products reached the following conclusion: in spite of initial resistance, new developments will mean products will very soon resemble best meat in texture and further developments in the flavour and colour to the protein will make it difficult to distinguish real from imitation.

To the best of my knowledge the only product that ever came close to fulfilling that prophecy is Quorn which is produced from a fungus grown as a live culture in vats. This latest development - and here I must confess that I am at a loss as to which of the 625 articles pulled up by Google to link to - uses stem cells from cattle to grow muscle cells in a laboratory so the resulting product really is meat, not a vegetarian substitute.

Incidentally, at the same time they were developing edible spun protein, to give KESP its technical definition, the same company had a team working on synthetic tobacco. I was a smoker back then and tried one of the cigarettes. Actually I was supposed to smoke a whole pack of twenty but one puff was enough! A smoker who has inadvertently lit the wrong end of a tipped cigarette will have some idea of what the version of synthetic tobacco I was given to try tasted like. The rest of you will have to use your imaginations.

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