The world’s first 3D-printed steak grown in a lab is ready for its closeup! An Israeli food technology company called Aleph Farms has successfully cultivated a slaughter-free ribeye steak using 3D bioprinting technology.
Unlike 3D printing technology, 3D bioprinting technology involves the printing of actual living cells that are then incubated to grow, differentiate, and interact. In this case, Aleph Farms used lab-grown muscle tissue that was created with cells harvested from a living animal.
The result, which was developed with research partners at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, is a food that has the texture and qualities of a real steak, without the inhumane or standard environmental impact. This type of product is typically referred to as “cultivated meat.”
Additionally, this new meat-making process involves a proprietary system that’s similar to the vascularization that occurs naturally in tissues. This enables the perfusion of nutrients across the thicker tissue.
This results in a steak that bears a very similar shape and structure to meat taken directly from livestock. More specifically, this lab-grown steak incorporates muscle and fat similar to its slaughtered counterparts. It also boasts the same organoleptic attributes of a delicious tender, juicy ribeye steak you’d buy from the butcher.
Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, said in a statement sent to LIVEKINDLY that the steak was developed due to demand for “thicker and fattier cuts of meat.”
“Additional meat designs will drive a larger impact in the mid and long term,” he added. Using 3D bioprinting, Aleph Farms will be able to develop different types of cultured meat. “This milestone for me marks a major leap in fulfilling our vision of leading a global food system transition toward a more sustainable, equitable and secure world.”
Is Cultivated Meat Vegan?
Since 3D-printed steak uses living animal cells, it’s not vegan. Unlike typical plant-based alternatives that are often made from ingredients such as soy, pea protein and mung bean protein, cultivated (AKA lab-grown) meat is derived from animals.
The cultivated meat market has experienced significant growth in recent years. Last month, Spain-based Biotech Foods, which has been producing its own cell-based pork since 2017, received a €3.7 million boost from the Spanish government to continue to develop lab-grown meat.
The new CULTUREDMEAT project aims to continue investigating meat produced via cellular agriculture and develop further sustainable, slaughter-free products.
Additionally, San Diego-based BlueNalu has said it plans to bring cell-based seafood products to market later this year. Mitsubishi is bringing lab-grown meat to Japan thanks to a partnership with Aleph Farms.
The Future of Cultivated Steak
While plant-based meat alternatives are typically served with condiments, buns, or other add-ons, Toubia says Aleph Farms’ rib-eye will often be served unadorned and at the center of a plate. In fact, he even noted that the company is planning to adapt the steak to a specific country or palate.
“With cows, the breed has a role, but the quality comes from the feed. With our cultivated meat it is similar,” he told The Washington Post. “We control the cultivation process, and we can design meat specifically for a market, adjusting the amount of collagen and connective tissues and fat, to tailor meat to specific requirements. The idea is not to replace traditional agriculture but to build a second category of meat.”
However, so far, Singapore is the only country that has approved the sale of lab-grown meat and it’s unclear when and if other nations will follow suit.
In March 2019, the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service agreed to establish a regulatory framework for foods made from cultivated cells of livestock and poultry, but approval seems far off.
Still, Toubia says Aleph’s first products (which also includes a cultivated thin-cut steak developed in 2018 that did not utilize 3D bioprinting) will reach the marketplace in the second half of 2022.
The entrepreneur pointed out that because cultivated meat can be traced back to a specific cell, there will be more transparency than with traditional animal agriculture, with no need for antibiotics.
What’s more? Since the meat will be grown in a sterile environment in a closed system, it will be shipped with certified zero pathogens, which can potentially help preserve the product for a longer period of time.
The Impact of Cultivated Meat on Eating Habits
Americans alone eat nearly 50 billion burgers a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but just because Aleph Farms has developed lab-grown steaks, that doesn’t mean that the food industry will change over night, nor will demand for this innovative product suddenly soar.
For starters, the product is still in its infancy, which means it hasn’t yet reached a point at which its prices are competitive with typical steak or plant-based alternatives. And higher prices mean that when and if Aleph Farms’ lab-grown steaks hit the market next year, consumers may be less inclined to buy them.
“From our standpoint, time to market is important, but time to acceptance is more important,” Toubia told The Washington Post. “The companies that drive impact aren’t necessarily the ones first to launch—it’s Tesla versus the Nissan Leaf. And in any new technology that is initially expensive, like solar panels, cost goes down due to economies of scale.”
In other words, it could take years before cultivated meat like Aleph Farms’ ribeye is produced on a commercial scale and viewed as a competitive product with the likes of traditional steaks and Beyond Meat patties.
Cultivated Meat and the Climate Crisis
There are also questions about the role cultivated meat plays with regards to climate change.
While land-based animal agriculture clearly accelerates the climate crisis, some researchers speculate that depending on the efficiency of the production process, the rise of the cultured meat industry could actually make climate change worse than traditional beef production.
A widely-discussed sticking point is the longer lasting impact of carbon pollution versus methane gas pollution. “Lab meat doesn’t solve anything from an environmental perspective, since the energy emissions are so high,” Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, told CNBC in October 2019.
“So much money is poured into meat labs, but even with that amount of money, the product still has a carbon footprint that is roughly five times the carbon footprint of chicken and ten times higher than plant-based processed meats.”
Additionally, a study published in the journal, Frontiers in Sustainable Food System, found that emissions from a meat lab produce energy made up of carbon dioxide, which persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. In contrast, methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced by raising and killing cattle, disappears from the atmosphere in about a dozen years.
Still, supporters of the burgeoning cultured meat industry say the technology has other advantages—it helps preserve endangered species and other animals and significantly curbs land and water use.