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Altered Steaks
A Short Story By Gus Frederick

The air was alive with the aroma of a thousand backyard barbecues. From push carts and restaurants alike the unmistakable odor of roasting animal flesh permeated the city.

As the petite figure with the fair complexion and no nonsense expression walked into the building, the cooked meat smell gave way to the stench of tanned leather. It clung to almost every vertical surface. Even inside the elevator she noticed the smooth brown texture of polished cowhide.

"United Steaks of America" boldly floated upon the clear vertical surface of the double-glass doors in shiny blue letters. The reflected sunlight glinted off them as the woman from the USDA glided into the plush high-rise waiting room.

At first glance, it could have belonged to any member of corporate America. The neutral colors, leather paneling and chrome edged furniture gave that "Fortune 500" feel to anyone entering. The motif was distinctive Americana tastefully blended with early twenty-first century art deco. It spoke highly of some anonymous interior decorator. Only the series of framed color magazine advertisements betrayed the identity.

The receptionist glanced up from her desktop reading, and with a cheery plastic sort of smile followed the determined figure as she approached the desk.

Body language indicated that the two women were from very different stations in life. The smiling receptionist with high-school-beauty-queen demeanor politely inquired; "May I help you?" as the smartly dressed executive complete with tinted suede suit stopped in front of the desk.

The official looking visitor glanced up at the mock presidential seal above the desk and curtly replied: "I have an appointment with Mr. Hendrix. Ms. Munson from the Department of Agriculture," she added, glancing down at the seated figure.

"If you will have a seat ..." she said turning towards the intercom.

Janet Munson walked over to one of the several soft leather-covered chairs lining the wall. The seats were arranged in such a way as to allow for a view of the framed ads and also keep the visitor in sight of the receptionist.

"Mr. Hendrix? A 'Ms. Munson' from the USDA here to see you." she told the telephone handset, nodded and relayed to the visitor: "He will be out in about three minutes ..." she replied as the telephone returned to its perch.

Jan flashed her a fake smile and glanced about the waiting room. The receptionist turned her gaze to the unseen reading material on the desk and re-entered some other inner world. Jan eyed the pseudo-seal hanging above the desk. At a distance it could easily be confused for the real thing until one noticed the steaming platter of in vitro meat arranged in the shape of the eagle.

In vitro meat. One of the more bizarre products to come from stem cell research.

Ever since the 1970s, genetic engineers had provided us with mass-produced human insulin, frost resistant crops and other products of the genetic revolution. But these accomplishments were achieved by the manipulation of simple single-celled bacterium. The real question was what made identical genes into brain cells or blood cells.

With the cracking of the human genome, and the rush of stem cell studies, genetic research took off in many new directions. The practical commercial applications became apparent almost immediately. Specialized cells could be rapidly and efficiently cloned. From several hair cells, baldness could be "cured." Brain cells could be replaced, and even arms or legs lost by accident could be regenerated.

But the biggest money-maker in the long run proved to be the spawning of the in vitro meat industry.

"Cultured Meat Farming" was pioneered by genetic engineers at Oregon State University, who showed how to grow large tissue cultures from, the prime beef cuts. The cells in the culture are manipulated with various enzymes, amino acids and other biological tricks so that they grow more of the identical tissue. The result is a "crop" of steak grown in vats with no bones, brains or other non-essential products. Even though the end product is "meat," an animal was not killed to produce it. Best of all, it didn't cost nearly as much as raising the entire animal.

It has happened many times before in the history of corporate America. Once secure giants that did not adapt were supplanted by the entrepreneurial bad boys who made use of the new technology. The United Steaks of America was one such company.

In the tradition of Apple Computer, two young graduate students, Ron Hendrix and Darren Scribler, took their meager savings and hawked most everything else to start the first commercial in vitro meat farm. Darren, the brains behind the team, handled research and development, while his partner, Ron, guided the marketing. Despite dire predictions that consumers would never accept in vitro, or "cultured" meat, United Steaks quickly grew into one of the country's biggest food conglomerates. They soon diversified from production into distribution, including an international chain of United Steak Houses in 25 countries specializing in a wide variety of exotic cultured meats.

The figure before her sported the double-breasted triple-figure chamois uniform of the stereotypical CEO. Ron Hendrix's tall lanky frame, short black hair and perpetual smile looked more like they belonged to a used car salesman. He burst into the waiting room as if he were an actor coming on stage.

"Just like he was in college," Jan thought to herself. And to think, she had once been in love with this money-hungry egotist.

"Weeeell hello Jan! NICE to see you again!!" He exclaimed as he extended his right arm.

"Thrilled, as always Ron," she replied, with more than a bit of sarcasm in her voice as she formally shook his hand.

"Won't you follow me?" He added, directing her through the still-open door.

They entered into a long hallway, lined on each side with various clear-glass office doors bearing such titles as "Marketing," "New Product Development" and "Data Management." At the end of the hall was a large double door covered with a shiny, light-brown hide. "Beef Chief" was branded on it in western style letters, complimented with designs that suggested a southwestern Native American origin.

"Buffalo?" she inquired as she felt the rough texture.

"Good eye, Jan! Leather happens to be a natural byproduct of our operation." He answered. "The product needs to be protected during production, so with a few extra gene snips we grow our own cover. We end up with literally square kilometers of the stuff. We can't give it away! But you know that already."

Interesting how things come full circle; Jan thought to herself. Animal skins made up the first and only human clothing for countless millennia. By the later part of the twentieth century it became a sign of wealth and opulence as leather costs went up. And to many, a cruel and unnecessary way to attire human bodies. Now it was cheaper than cotton and covered everything.

They entered the office, paneled with complimentary shades of tanned leather. The floor was carpeted wall-to-wall in soft, cultured wool. Ron motioned her towards a corner of the office no doubt reserved for VIP entertainment. She sat down and he joined her.

"So what brings you to the 'United Steaks' ..." he quipped; "... surely not to renew old romances! So I can only assume that it is for official reasons."

"Still the charmer, I see ..." she cynically said; "You're right, I'm here in an official capacity."

"What can I do you for?" He replied in an overdone jovial manner. "We always like to be USDA approved!"

"I'm here concerning the consumer marketing application for your latest product ..." she pulled out her laptop and keyed in a few entries; "... here it is, 'Uncle Sam's Special Steak'."

"That's 'Sam's Special Steak'; 'Triple S' for short, and that product app. was approved six months ago. We've been selling it for five! Quite a success actually, so what's the problem?"

"You tell me. But I would like to check out the production line. What kind of culture is it cloned from?"

"Come on Jan, you know that's a trade secret. It's a special hybrid clone featuring attributes from many sources." He answered as deliberately vague as he could. "Say, this isn't a personal 'beef' is it?"

"Not in the least ..." she replied ignoring the blatant pun, "... we just want to make sure the people get what they pay for."

"Yah, Right. Let's cruise on out to the farm." He said as he walked over to his desk. The electronic voice of the receptionist answered with a sugary "Yes Mr. Hendrix?"

"Ms. Munson and I will be driving out to the Farm for a few hours, Debbie. Please have Darren meet us at the reception area and forward any calls out there." He recited, as Jan secured the brief and rose to her feet. "Shall we be off?" he added, motioning her to the door.

As he drove them out to the farm, Ron lost no time filling in the details of his successful life since the last time he had seen her. Details that were well known to almost everyone who ever glanced at the Wall Street Journal. She assumed that he enjoyed bragging. She was right.

"... it was said that during the height of the defoliation of the Amazon basin that hundreds of thousands of unknown species of plants were lost forever. Many of which may have provided humanity with new useful medicines. And for what? To provide more grazing land for the ever growing herds of cattle!

"Cattle. The animal flesh that built the west. Before that it was the buffalo. And even though we're omnivorous, we humans have always relied of some kind of animal protein, whether beef, buffalo or turkey. Even in the so-called 'vegetarian' societies of Japan and India, animal flesh in the form of fish provided much of the needed nourishment. In reality, there were very few truly vegetarian folks in the world, then or now ..."

He seemed to be ignoring her, lost in the vast depths of his continuing monologue. Well, she thought, he always could lay down a good rap.

"... The old arguments against the production of animal protein took on more and more validity as populations increased and available land decreased. It really did require much more energy pound-to-pound to produce meat on the hoof than corn on the cob. Even fast breeding creatures like chicken and rabbits weren't nearly as cost effective as soy beans. But they sure as hell tasted a lot better!

"So if you really wanted your meat, and most of us red-blooded Americans did, you simply paid more. And if you couldn't afford it, you went without. The higher meat prices hit the fast-food chains the hardest. The 'MacWhopper Wars' of the late '80s and early '90s gave way to a sifting out of competition in the latter part of the twentieth century. With a few of the giants ending up with a virtual monopoly on the multi-mega patty meat market.

"But even their position was not as secure as they would have liked. The burger-vacuum created a new market for Soy Dogs, Fish & Chippers and Super Salad Bar joints. And the cost of animal derived meat was so high, that a beef burger that cost $1.00 in the 1990's now cost well over $10.00! Then WE came to the rescue ..."

"And took over the market for yourselves." Jan said.

"It was their own faults! Those bastards thought the public would be satisfied with the same old gutbombs they'd been churning out for years. That's the beauty of cultured meat! Anything goes! Since we don't have to slaughter any animals, the field's open to a wide range of cultured meat products. Everything from antelope to zebra! 'Roo Burgers', for that 'down under' taste, 'Bambi Sausage' from the venison vats, even 'Siberian Mammoth Steaks' made of ancient frozen genetic material. It's the obvious solution to the vegetarian who likes a hamburger, but not the guilt of devouring a dead cow. But the important thing is the fact that more meat can be produced in a smaller area with less energy ... and much, much cheaper! THEY didn't want to take risks, but we DID!"

"So your clients became your competition."

"They're still our clients ..." he added, "... we clone the best beef for the money! But I'm sure they would love to see us fall on our faces so that they could pick up the pieces."

"... and now you've got this new 'mystery meat'. I hear it's quite popular ..." Jan commented.

"The consumers demand more variety, and we strive to deliver ..." he stressed, as he tried to change the subject. "... All within the cultural tastes of the particular societies we're dealing with, however. Pork, cultured or not, still is not a big item in Israel or Muslim countries. And no amount of fancy packaging could sell anything labeled 'Doggie Steaks' in America, even though they are a big hit in certain third world countries."

"... It's tender, low in fats and has a very distinctive taste that most everyone who has tried it enjoys ..." she persisted. "If one didn't know better, you'd think that the U.S. government was selling this stuff from all the patriotic-looking advertising!"

"Yah, it is quite a campaign. Here's a sample ..." he said as he reached into the glove box and pulled out a full-page magazine ad. She glanced down at the glossy Rockwellesque painting: Uncle Sam standing in front of Old Glory serving up a steaming platter of "Special Steaks" to the typical American family cheerfully waiting at the dinner table. The bold slogan displayed at the bottom in red, white and blue star spangled letters.

"But hey, Uncle Sam over his long career has sold everything from war bonds to breakfast cereal. So why not cultured meat as well? Besides, it's the product the people want. They LOVE the taste!"

"The rumor in the industry is that it's some sort of cultured monkey meat ..." She continued. "... except that the monkey featured in your restaurants doesn't taste that good!"

"Have you had a chance to try any yet?" he asked.

"No, not yet." she answered; "I haven't tried snails yet either, and I seriously doubt that I ever will!"

"To bad, we're going to start cloning them soon, along with a whole line of exotic seafood!" He quipped; "... Mahi-Mahi, Blue Whale, Bottle-Nose Dolphin; 'tuna-safe' of course!"

She didn't even try to hide her disgusted look.

"... Hey, all we need is a few harmless tissue samples; it doesn't even have to be stem cells. Ol' Darren can crack into that RNA like a thief into a safe! Well, here we are ..." and with that Ron pulled the car into his private spot, labeled in a similar manner as his office door.

They walked into the reception area; a surgically clean white-walled room with shiny chrome and black leather chairs. A glassed-in window on the far wall showed the only life: a determined looking woman clothed in white rabbit skin coveralls and matching hood watched as the two figures approached.

Ron and Jan walked up to the window, and the woman, recognizing Ron, sat up straight and said: "Good afternoon Mr. Hendrix. Dr. Scribler's waiting for you inside."

Ron acknowledged the fact and keyed in his ID number into the countertop access pad. A section of the white wall silently slid back and the two entered. Inside was a long rack with rows of identical white coveralls, hoods, plastic overshoes and gloves.

"This one looks like your style ..." Ron sarcastically said as he handed the featureless garments to Jan.

They quickly dressed, and Ron walked up to another keypad on the wall, pressed several numbers, then another door opened into small passageway. They entered, and the door closed behind them.

"Standard UV/carbolic acid sterilizer ..." Ron told her as he grabbed a couple of clear oval plastic bowls. "... Put this over your face like this ..."

Yet another keypad, and the room was bathed in bright purple light from all sides. This was followed immediately by a spray of fine mist. The entire procedure lasted all of thirty seconds. After which another door opened revealing a vast expanse of large stainless steel vats, robotic servos and identical white clad workers scurrying to and fro.

Jan couldn't help but be impressed at the antiseptic-smelling industrial landscape spread out before them. Her attention was broken by one of the myriad white-clad figures who approached. As he got closer, it became apparent that this small thin frame did not fit in with the rest of the workers.

"Hello Jan. How are you?" Darren Scribler politely asked.

"Hi Darren. Nice to see you again." She sincerely answered. Jan had always liked Darren, and could never understand how these two obviously different personalities could get along with one another, let alone create a multi-billion dollar global corporation.

"Jan wants to check out the 'Triple S' line ..." Ron said; "... but she still hasn't said why."

Darren eyed Ron with a concerned look, which quickly changed to a wry smile. "Right ... half a moment, and I'll summon us a cart." Darren said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small keypad. He punched a few keys and replaced it.

"The 'Triple S' section is on the other side of the farm ..." Darren said. "... It would take much less time to ride over there ... ah, here's our limo now."

A small four seated robotic cart rolled up and stopped in front of the trio. They climbed in and took their seats.

"S.S.S. Section A." Darren instructed the silicon driver, and the cart sped off along it's memorized route. "So why are you here, Jan?" he asked.

"Like I told 'The Beef Chief' here, the USDA is VERY interested in this particular product ..." she replied. "... We would like to know how you grow such a - shall we say UNIQUE? - brand of cultured meat."

"The USDA? Or maybe others ..." Ron said. "... Maybe someone who would love to have the 'Triple S' secret!"

"Now now, Ron, you know we serve the people ..." She said.

"But so do we!" Ron quickly added as the cart zipped by row after row of glistening cultured meat vats.

This time it was Jan's turn to smile. "That's just what I want to talk to you about ..." She reached down and in one pre-rehearsed movement placed the laptop on her lap and pushed a single key. A sheet of paper quickly scrolled out. She handed the sheet to Darren who examined it with the skilled eye of a trained genetic engineer.

"You really do 'serve the people' don't you?" she asked Ron as the cart glided to a stop in front of yet another big vat of cultured meat.

Ron said nothing as he slowly climbed out of the cart and walked over to the vat filled with a large flat pulsating pink surface about the size of a basketball court.

"Where the hell did you get this?!?" Darren exclaimed, slapping the sheet with the back of his fingers.

"Does it really matter?" She answered; "I think it's pretty plain. DNA charts don't lie, and that's not monkey meat in that vat!"

"Cultured meat is cultured meat ..." Darren said; "... no living creature was killed to produce our product, and Triple S exceeds even HACCP standards. We've gone over this with our liability experts. We're legally legitimate."

"After all ..." Ron added with a smirk as he turned back around; "... our slogan says it all!"

In all honesty, Jan had to admit as she remembered the slick magazine ad Ron had shown her in the car; they did have a point. Even though it may have been used in a slightly different context than its originator Abe Lincoln had meant, it did indeed say it all:

"Sam's Special Steaks"
Of The People; By The People; For The People

© 1986 by R. D. Frederick