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Where's the beef? Better not to know.

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- The other day, as has become my biannual custom, I met with my good friend Bruce Friedrich so he could once again try to demonstrate to me that eating meat not only is ethically and environmentally indefensible, but that there are now plant-based alternatives that are nearly indistinguishable and equally succulent. These conversations, with their attendant blind-taste tests, have not gone well for Bruce in the past. This time we met at a Burger King, which is pioneering the highly touted Impossible Whopper, featuring a meatless meat.

We ordered a Whopper and an Impossible Whopper. I left the table when the food arrived, so Bruce could unpackage the burgers -- they come in different wrappers -- and lay them out anonymously on a tray. Just to be sure, he took a photo of each, and labeled them in his phone, so there could be no doubt afterward which was which, given their advertised astounding similarity.

Back at the table I lifted up the bun of each, and told him I strongly suspected the burger on the left was the phony, because it had a ridiculously even circumference, as though it had been formed with a cookie cutter. Then I took a single bite out of each. "Definitely the phony is on the left," I said, because, unlike the Whopper, which tasted like familiarly mediocre fast food, the phony tasted like processed cat doots.

Bruce sighed. I had nailed it.

So we were barely five minutes into our meeting, marinating in depression -- we both want this plant thing to work; I, because I feel guilty about eating meat, and Bruce because he is one of the country's most effective and dedicated advocates of meat alternatives. He runs the Good Food Institute, an international organization that is trying to get people out of the animal-torture, environmentally disastrous meat-eating habit, for good. With our experiment dismally over, Bruce and I got to talking philosophically, which is when things got really interesting.

He explained that GFI is working on two fronts at the same time: plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Whopper, and "cultivated meat," which is meat grown in a lab from animal cells, without harming any living things. The meat begins with a biopsy the size of a sesame seed. It's not just theoretical. As of now, creating a chicken nugget, for example, is doable -- in fact, it's been done -- though it is still vastly too expensive to be commercially viable. But the costs are plummeting.

 

"OK, wait," I said. "Let's say some adventurous eater wanted to pay you to create a giraffe burger, or a gorilla burger. Could you do it for them?"

"Sure," he said, though it would probably cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Prohibitive.

I noted that I work for the richest man on Earth.

"Interesting," he said: Yes, he said, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, could order and get a giraffe or gorilla burger. For Jeff, financially, it would entail the outlay comparable to my ordering a Serrano ham and brie sandwich: a little pricey, but doable. And it would be ethically fine: You're not harming an innocent creature.

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