The hucksters animal-rights activists at PETA have announced their own version of the X-Prize: the In Vitro Meat Contest. One million dollars to the contestant that can create convincing vat-grown chicken substitute at price competitive to real boneless chicken breast. Their well-oiled publicity machine has gotten plenty of press about it. But there’s a catch (or two). First, there’s a deadline: 30 June 2012. The original Ansari X Prize–$10,000,000 for launching a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks–was created in 1996 and wasn’t won until 2004. Going back a little further, the Orteig Prize was first offered in 1919 and wasn’t won until Lindbergh’s flight in 1927. Is there something about the imagined market for in vitro meat that is going to disappear in 2012? Worse, though, is the second catch: to win, you have to have scaled up production and brought your product to market in at least ten states. This would be like demanding the winner of the X Prize have a thriving space tourism business.

"Quorn logo"For comparison, let’s take a look at another meat substitute, the mycoprotein marketed under the name Quorn. According to the timeline on the Quorn website, the initial search for an appropriate protein began way back in 1965. “Initial work” on the flavor and texture of mycoprotein began in 1969. Pilot production and testing didn’t begin until 1975 and the product wasn’t approved for sale in the UK until 1985. Twenty years to market, ten of which were after the basics of the product had been nailed down and pilot production started. Oh, and Quorn wasn’t approved for sale in the US until 2002. Even then it was approved only over the histrionic objections of the Center for “Science” in the Public Interest.

Given the history of Quorn, is it reasonable to think that anyone will be able to develop and bring to market a completely new meat substitute in just over four years? I sure don’t think so. Even if they had something ready to go today, I doubt they’d even be able to get FDA approval in four years. So what are we to make of PETA’s much-publicized contest? Well, my opinion is that the rules of the contest were devised to make winning nearly impossible. The wave of press attention they’re getting is the entire point of the contest. June 2012 will come and go with nary a peep from PETA (or alternately with an indignant press release about their great disappointment that no one rose to the challenge). As we carnivores say, it’s all sizzle and no steak.

As an aside, I have to mention that the first thing that popped into my mind when I read about PETA’s contest was the title of this post, “ChickieNobs.” In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian/apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake genetic engineering has run amok:

“This is the latest,” said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.

“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve on a growth unit.”

No beak, no eyes, no feathers, just the bare minimum of brain function to support digestion and growth. The end result? Tasty cheap chicken: ChickieNobs.

Update: Slate has an article today by Daniel Engber coming to much the same conclusion about this X-Poultry Prize. I wish I’d seen it earlier; it would have saved me a lot of typing. As an added bonus, the article has an illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty, best known in this house as the author of Who Needs Donuts. That’s right, who needs donuts when you’ve got in vitro meat?