Thursday, April 24, 2008

PETA's Prize for Fake Meat

PETA is now offering a $1 million to anyone who can produce "commercially viable" fake meat:

The organization said it would announce plans on Monday for a $1 million prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”

The NY Times article is mainly about the controversy within the organization over fake meat. That there even was a controversy is ridiculous, but apparently there are those within the organization who think that even vat grown meat treads too closely to the consumption of live animals. But the real issue appears to be the qualifications that PETA appended to the competition. What does the language above mean? Daniel Engber explains:

So what's wrong with the PETA prize? You need to sell your product in order to win. According to the contest guidelines (PDF), the million-dollar meat must be available in stores to qualify for the cash. Fake-chicken entrepreneurs have to demonstrate a "commercial sales minimum" at a "comparable market price"; in plain English, they need to move 2,000 pounds of the stuff at supermarkets and chain restaurants spread out across 10 states during a period of three months. And the Franken-meat can't cost more than regular chicken.

That means PETA won't be content with any intermediate (and not immediately profitable) breakthrough, like the development of lab-grown chicken that tastes as good as the natural stuff. Instead, the organization will hold the purse until a "commercially viable" product hits the market. In other words, you can't win the $1 million unless you're already in position to make a profit. At that point, a science prize doesn't provide much incentive for innovation. It's more like a small bonus.

To make matters worse, PETA's commercial requirements saddle researchers with demands that have nothing to do with science. Any company that wants to sell artificial chicken for public consumption will probably face a lengthy government-review process. Consider that it took five years for the Food and Drug Administration to approve the sale of cloned meat. Let's say you invented a perfect chicken substitute tomorrow—something so delicious and inexpensive that it could go into production right away. Even then, you still might not make the PETA deadlne for market sales.

So in other words, the blockheads at PETA have made it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to actually win this prize. Researchers, seeing that for themselves, will have no motivation to try to win it. Here's a quote from the NY Times article:

Another scientist at Utrecht, Bernard Roelen, said via e-mail that he was “rather surprised” by news of the competition, but said that even with strong financing, it would be extremely difficult to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat before 2012. Professor Roelen added, “For me as a researcher, the announcement does not mean so much.”

Many animal rights activists (including myself) have long been critical of PETA for their publicity stunts and an in-your-face approach that only discourages people from paying attention to the plight of animals. I thought this prize might be a step in a more practical direction, but instead it appears to be more about getting attention for PETA and less about actually doing anything to help the millions of animals we consume each year. Too bad.

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