Not many people like to think much about where their meat actually comes from. I’m no vegan, or even vegetarian, but I admit that I get a little bit queasy at times if I’m reminded of what my bacon and hamburgers used to be, and how they got to my plate. I’m not sure, yet, whether the idea of meat grown – or 3D printed – in a lab makes me feel better, or just weirder. I’d love to see a formal survey asking people how they feel about eating lab-grown meat (we’ve already seen that most people aren’t on board with general 3D printed food), but whether we like it or not, it seems to be coming soon.Startup Hampton Creek plans to begin marketing lab-grown meat as soon as next year. If the company’s name sounds familiar, you may have seen – or even tried – one of their products already; they’re best known for a vegan mayonnaise made from split peas. A bit of controversy came with this mayo, with allegations of bad science, paid customers and mislabeling among the concerns; just a few weeks ago, Target pulled several of the company’s products from shelves over concerns about mislabeling and food safety issues. So far, the allegations are unconfirmed.
Controversy aside, Hampton Creek is forging ahead with plans to introduce what they call “clean meat” to the public by 2018. The Silicon Valley startup is big on plant-based foods, but admits that it’s not realistic to get most customers to choose veggie burgers over beef, no matter how close to the real thing they taste (which often isn’t very, in my experience). So they’re taking a different approach – animal protein made without harming animals.
If scientists are capable of bioprinting human tissue for research purposes, then why can’t a food company bioprint animal tissue for consumption? There are definite reasons to consider it, at least. There’s plenty of evidence of animal cruelty in factory farming, but even humane farming practices have their negatives, especially for the environment. Livestock, particularly cows, produce high levels of methane, a worse culprit in global warming than carbon dioxide. Then there are the forests that are cleared to create more and more grazing space, plus the water that’s required, the pesticides, the fertilizer, which all contribute to ecological problems. In short, our current meat consumption habits are unsustainable as the world population continues to grow.
Hampton Creek’s solution is to create meat and seafood from cells instead of from entire animals. The idea is that cell lines from the desired species would be obtained and cultivated in a bioreactor, then seeded on to a scaffold and differentiated into different cell types – fat, muscle, etc. That’s where 3D bioprinting could come in. One of the biggest challenges at the moment is finding a biocompatible scaffold, but Hampton Creek is confident that they can keep to their timetable.
“Meat and seafood are primarily a combination of muscle and fat cells,” says Josh Tetrick, Founder and CEO of Hampton Creek. “They require nutrients to grow, whether inside an animal or in a clean facility. And the main limiting factor in scaling clean meat has been providing cells with a sustainable and economical source of nutrients required for cell growth. Our methodology of discovery (material isolation, assays, and discovery output) is the same whether we’re finding a plant to replace dairy in butter or a plant to feed cells for clean and sustainable meat and seafood.
With plants providing nutrients for animal cells to grow, we believe we can produce meat and seafood that is over 10x more efficient than the world’s highest volume slaughterhouse (a 1,000,000-square foot facility in Tar Heel, N.C.). “
But will people eat it? It remains to be seen whether the general public will be more or less squeamish about eating lab-grown or 3D printed meat than about eating animals. Tetrick points out several advantages to clean meat, in addition to the humane and environmental benefits: no antibiotics and less risk of foodborne illnesses are among them. If it works as well as Hampton Creek says it will, and if people embrace it, 3D printing meat and seafood in a lab could be a great alternative to our current damaging farming and fishing practices. (Of course, there’s always 3D printed bugs and algae in place of standard meat products, too.)According to Tetrick, the first lab-produced meat product the company releases will likely be some sort of poultry, but they plan to expand to include all meats and seafoods eventually. Will the public be receptive to 3D printed meat? If Hampton Creek meets their goal, we won’t have long to wait to find out.
Would you eat 3D printed meat? Let us know in the 3D Printed Meat forum at 3DPB.com.