An alleged startup claims that it wants to make and sell "artisinal salami" made from celebrity tissue samples. Even if it's a joke, it raises the question: What are the ethics of consuming lab-grown human meat?
BiteLabs claims to be a biotech startup focused on cultivating and selling celebrity meat for human consumption. Perhaps taking inspiration from Brandon Cronenberg's film Antiviral, in which people can infect themselves with celebrity pathogens and eat meat grown from celebrity cells, BiteLabs says that it would biopsy celebrities, cultivate their tissue in a lab, and then mix it with animal meats to create their sausages.
Many folks have assumed that BiteLabs is a hoax, a parody of startup culture. Through an email conversation with Motherboard, a BiteLabs spokesperson made it sound more like an art project than a legitimate startup, saying, "BiteLabs is 100% serious in prompting widespread discussion about bioethics, lab-grown meats, and celebrity culture - this is very important to us."
This invites jokes about "eating the rich," but let's consider the question of whether it would be ethical to eat human meat—celebrity meat in particular—grown in a lab. Researchers have been working on cultivating lab-grown meat for human consumption in hopes of creating, for example, a hamburger that requires no animal suffering. At the same time, lab-cultivated human tissues offer great promise in terms of medical care. This isn't the first time that someone has considered whether the two ideas might be married and that we might be able to consume lab-grown human meat. In a 2010 piece, Popular Science asked the question of whether eating lab-grown human tissue would make a person a cannibal. The key idea that came up in the piece was that this sort of sanitized cannibalism represented an objectification and commodification of the human body.
The commodification of human tissue has been an issue in scientific research. Consider the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal line of cervical cancer cells (the HeLa cells) have been sold by research companies even though her family never gave permission, nor received compensation for the use of the cells. With the idea of celebrity meat, there is the added idea of fetishization, and the idea that these people are a commodity who could be quite literally consumed.
And that seems to be a key point of the BiteLabs project—the things that we want and demand from our celebrities. The project invites people to tweet at four different celebrities: James Franco, Jennifer Lawrence, Kanye West, and Ellen DeGeneres, asking them to consent to a biopsy so their tissues could be cultivate. The very idea that people are tweeting at these human beings, saying to them, "I want to see you turned into something I can eat," is itself nauseating. The question then becomes, in what other ways are we treating our celebrities as pieces of meat for our metaphorical consumption?