Scientists in China have created genetically modified cattle designed to produce tastier beef.
For chefs and food-lovers, the perfect steak has long been the holy grail.
Now scientists in China have joined the search, by creating genetically modified cattle which they say are designed to produce tastier beef.
Jing Qin 1 and 2 are clones given an extra gene which has been found to increase the amount of fat in their muscles.
When they are slaughtered, this will mean richly marbled cuts of beef – as tender, the scientists hope, as Japan’s famous wagyu beef.
The two calves are the first successful products of three years of research, but will have to reach maturity and be slaughtered to assess how successful the experiment is.
Professor Ni Minhong, who led the research at Beijing University of Agriculture’s department of advanced science and technology, said it was “a crucial step”.
“Through this project we will be the first in the world to successfully create transgenic cows with fatty acid binding protein,” he said.
“Unlike pork where leaner is better, a good amount of muscle fat content is one of the key elements when it comes to characterising beef quality.
“After more research it may be possible to achieve ideal marbling of meat in domestic cattle and provide an alternative to imported high-grade meat.”
It is the latest of a number of attempts to improve the meat and milk from livestock by genetically modifying the animals.
Earlier this year Chinese scientists revealed they had created cows whose milk could be drunk by people suffering from lactose intolerance and contained high levels of “healthy” fat found normally in fish.
Last year it also emerged that scientists from China had successfully introduced human genes into 200 dairy cows to produce milk with similar properties to human breast milk.
The latest work will add to debate over the ethics and safety of attempts to genetically modified livestock, with critics of the technology raising fears about the welfare of the animals involved and the possibility of the meat and milk they produce causing harm to humans.
Jing Qin 1 and 2 are a local Chinese breed of cattle called Qinchuan, but have had a gene which encourages the creation of what is called the adiposcyte fatty acid binding protein – the protein which creates a high number of thin streaks of fat between muscles.
The fat, which becomes marbling after the animals have been slaughtered, makes meat tender and creates its flavour.
John Torode, the MasterChef judge and author a book called “Beef”, said marbling is the key difference between a steak with flavour and one without/
“The strands of fat within the muscle work like a network and when cooked this fat melts. The melting fat soaks into the fibres of the muscles making it more tender and moist,” he said.
“If you have a muscle that is long and lean, with little fat, it will just be tough once cooked. Having that internal network of fat deposits in the muscle makes all the difference then between dry, stringy meat and sumptuous, tender meat.”
Wagyu beef has become famous around the world for its tenderness, and is the most expensive beef available. It is often known as Kobe beef because of its production in the area of Japan, but is now bred in Britain for sale in British restaurants.
Allowing genetically modified cattle would cut the cost of richly marbled beef.
Tests on the two calves have shown that they both carry the gene but it will be some months before further tests can be conducted to find out if their muscles are becoming enriched with fat.
The scientists say it could be several years before the new meat could be available in shops if it is approved by the authorities.
During the research, however, a number of animals miscarried during pregnancy while one GM calf died shortly after birth.
Professor Ni said that they needed to carry out further research to ensure the gene is stable in successive generations of cattle and they also want to try the gene in other varieties of beef cattle to see if how the meat differs.
He said: “We will be focusing on improving breeding rate to increase the population of our transgenic cows. Secondly, finding the most efficient and scientific way for feeding and testing cow’s muscle fat and proteins levels to determine if they are best for breeding purpose. Finally, some more experiments need to be carried out, such as hybridising our cows with regular cows to see if the trans-gene can be passed onto the future generations.”
The research has, however, raised concerns from animal rights campaign groups and critics of GM technology.
Dr Helen Wallace, director of campaign group Genewatch, said: “Most European consumers will be extremely concerned about the level of animal suffering involved in these GM experiments.
“Traditional breeding and other techniques can be used to improve meat quality. It is not necessary to use these technologies to make high value products.”