A Juicy Steak, Coming Right Up – Fresh Out of the Printer

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Aleph Farms' cultivated steak.
Aleph Farms' cultivated steak.Credit: Aleph Farms and the Technion

An Israeli company presented the world’s first lab-grown steak on Tuesday – produced without harming animals and with a thickness similar to that of a real steak.

The cultured steak, which even has muscle tissue and fat, was printed with a 3D printer. It was produced mainly from cells taken from animals that were then grown in the lab. People who have tasted it say it tastes and smells like real meat.

Until now, it was difficult for the cultivated meat industry to produce thick cuts of meat, due to problems with its three-dimensional nature and to the difficulty in creating the tissues that are required to connect with one another in a solid and convincing way. The steak made public on Tuesday was created by Aleph Farms in cooperation with Prof. Shulamit Levenberg of the Biomedical Engineering Department at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

At its initial stage of production, cells from animals were cultured in bioreactors – stainless steel containers with a solution that nourishes the cells. Then the cells were transferred to a 3D printer that printed them together with a three-dimensional base made of vegetable protein. The substrate enables the production of the three-dimensional structure of the steak.

Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, center, of the Technion's stem cell and tissue culture lab, with lab colleagues Iris Ianovici, left, and Dr. Yedidya Zagury.Credit: Nitzan Zohar/Spokesperson's Office

It envelops the animal cells and encourages them to coalesce and create the entire texture. It also includes a network of cavities that mimic blood vessels. They permit the absorption of nutrients and create the product’s familiar structure.

The company says that it expects to bring its first product to market – thin cuts of meat 3 to 5 millimeters thick – by the end of 2022. Initially it will only be sold to restaurants, but the plan is to make it available later at supermarkets as well. In a number of years, the company said, it expects to be able to sell real steaks that are at least 10 millimeters (nearly half an inch) thick, based on the technology presented Tuesday.

“This is an important milestone in the technological development and in our goal to create differences among cuts of cultivated meat,” Levenberg said. “This accomplishment was made possible by overcoming the technological hurdles that had held us back. When we look at the future of 3D bioprinting, there’s no limit to the possibilities.”

According to Aleph Farms’ founder and CEO Didier Toubia, the company is close to offering meat that has “a nutritional profile similar to or even better than that of regular meat.”

There is a global race on to produce cultivated meat. The primary motivation is the desire by both consumers and governments to reduce the environmental footprint of the meat industry and to produce meat that doesn’t inflict suffering upon animals.

The cultivated steak, featuring muscle and fat.Credit: Aleph Farms and the Technion

The meat industry is considered one of the most polluting in the world. According to estimates, it consumes 8 percent of the world’s available water and 33 percent of the farmland and emits between 15 and 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Awareness of the harm caused by the meat industry has increased in recent years, in part due to the growing problem posed by burning Amazon forests for pastureland or to grow animal feed.

Two months ago, Singapore was the first country to permit the sale of chicken cuts that contained lab-grown animal cells and plant protein. The hybrid products, as they are called, which use animal cells as a kind of additive to a product that is mostly made of plant material, should be the first cultured meat to reach supermarket shelves in the near future, according to industry sources.

The next technological challenge the industry faces will be to produce products made entirely or almost entirely from plant cells, but they do not yet have a complex texture and are more like hamburger. The final stage of development will be the cultivated steak that is made from tissue derived from different types of cells – muscle and fat – and looks exactly like regular steak.

There are now dozens of firms in the field. Israel has another company, MeaTech, at the forefront of the technology.

The company is focusing on developing an industrial 3D printer that can quickly print large quantities of cuts of meat – and later on cuts of chicken and fish. MeaTech uses stem cells that are separated in a laboratory into fat and muscle cells. The stem cells are taken from the umbilical cords of cows, or in the case of chickens, from fertilized eggs.

The printer, the prototype for which is being built at the company’s offices in Nes Tziona, is slated to create a steak from scratch without using plant material. So far the company has managed to print thin slices of cultivated carpaccio. In the future, the company hopes to be able to print thicker cuts and also make industrial-scale production of the cuts possible on huge printers.

“We are positioning cells at high resolution with the help of a printer. That permits us to adapt the cells and the structure that holds everything together from scratch and allows us to build very complex things,” said MeaTech’s CEO, Sharon Fima. The company recently acquired a Belgian company called Peace of Meat, for 15 million euros ($18 million). It specializes in producing chicken-based hybrid products.

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