A Decade of Progress in Cultured and Bioprinted Meat

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Diving into the world of 3D bioprinted cultivated meat reveals a dynamic landscape where biotechnology, food science, and engineering converge. Despite its novelty, the industry has witnessed significant milestones in the past five years, each shaping the trajectory of this pioneering field and emphasizing its potential to reimagine the future of food.

2011-2017: Foundational Years

Before 3D printing became widespread, people had already considered making meat in labs. In the 1990s, Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen, often considered the “father” of cultured meat, secured a patent for producing meat this way, even though he had been exploring the idea since the 1950s. Fast forward to the 2000s, and Dr. Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands grabbed global headlines when he unveiled the world’s first lab-grown burger in 2013. These pioneers laid the groundwork for the intersection of 3D printing and cultured meat we see today.

However, the timeline becomes more recent when combining the concept of 3D printing with lab-grown meat. Founded in 2011, Missouri-based Modern Meadow is one of the earliest startups in the space that looked to combine biotechnology with 3D printing. Initially seeking to create lab-grown leather, it later explored the possibilities of producing meat. While their primary focus would eventually lean towards leather, their initiative ignited the flame for future startups.

Throughout these foundational years, the idea of 3D bioprinted cultured meat transitioned from a mere concept to a niche sector. Various startups emerged, especially in the mid-to-late 2010s, like US brands Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods), Eat Just, Finless Foods, and Wild Type. Israel has become a hotspot for cultured meat startups, including Aleph Farms, SuperMeat, MeaTech (now Steakholder Foods), and Future Meat Technologies (now Believer Meats). Others like Dutch Mosa Meat, known for producing the world’s first lab-grown burger under Dr. Mark Post, and Singapore’s Shiok Meats remain at the forefront.

2018: The Year Cultured Meat Broke Ground

In 2018, the once sci-fi concept of cultured meat began transitioning to dinner plates. Investments fueled the production of these novel “fake” meats, driving advances in intricate 3D bioprinted meat structures. Aleph announced the creation of a lab-grown steak, a triumph over the simpler textures of burgers and nuggets. Thanks to a blend of cellular agriculture and bioprinting, it sought to capture the authenticity of a beef steak.

Venture capitalists poured funds into these ventures. For example, Upside Foods secured a $17 million Series A round, BlueNalu $4.5 million, and SuperMeat $4 million.

However, as with any new industry, challenges emerged. Regulatory snags, public skepticism, and scaling up without compromising quality are among the battles these startups face today.

Four menu items in BlueNalu's portfolio.

BlueNalu showcases four menu items of its cultured fish. Image courtesy of BlueNalu.

2019: A Year of Research and Global Discussion

Peer-reviewed articles about 3D bioprinting of cultured meat began appearing, highlighting the progress in the field. Also, events such as the New Harvest Conference, Cultured Meat Symposium, International Conference on Food Engineering and Biotechnology, and even SXSW began, including discussions or dedicated segments to cellular agriculture and 3D bioprinting.

2020: A Year of Rules and Breakthroughs

In 2020, talk about lab-grown meat turned to action as countries started setting rules for it. The US, European Union (EU), Singapore, Israel, UK, Australia, and Canada began developing guidelines. Singapore stood out by being the first to allow the sale of cultured chicken. Meanwhile, exciting progress was made in the labs. Top universities, like Harvard and MIT, made big leaps in creating edible structures needed for 3D printed meat.

On the business side, even with the challenges of Covid-19, money kept flowing into this new food tech. Big investors and celebrities put their money behind the future of meat.

2021: A Year of Taste Tests and Pioneering Efforts

In 2021, Singapore made history by being the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat. While it wasn’t 3D bioprinted, this marked a significant step forward. Several companies ventured into public taste tests for 3D bioprinted meat products, most receiving favorable reviews. Aleph Farms from Israel stood out for successfully replicating the taste and texture of conventional beef in their lab-grown steak.

Spain’s NovaMeat and Israel’s Redefine Meat made waves with their 3D printed plant-based meat alternatives. Companies like Steakholder Foods and Eat Just pushed the envelope by focusing on 3D bioprinted meat and gaining regulatory approval, respectively. Mosa Meat, known for creating the first lab-grown burger, continued to receive positive feedback.

Redefine Meat's 3D printed alternative plant-based meats.

Redefine Meat’s Meat Matrix Additive Manufacturing technology for whole cut production. Image courtesy of Redefine Meat.

2022: A Year of Partnerships and Scaling Up

By 2022, the global conversation had turned to legislation and scaling up production. Many countries have addressed the regulation of lab-grown and 3D bioprinted meats. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly explored regulatory frameworks. At the same time, the EU leaned on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for guidance. As Israel emerged as a hub for cellular agriculture startups, it showed a keen interest in forming regulatory frameworks. Post-Brexit UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada began discussing their regulatory landscapes.

Industry partnerships grew. Global giants like Cargill and Tyson Foods began investing in lab-grown meat startups. Mosa Meat teamed up with Nutreco, and Eat Just partnered in Singapore. Nestlé looked into potential collaborations in the lab-grown meat sector. Many focused on reducing costs and addressing challenges related to scaling up production.

In a notable event, Upside Foods from California received recognition from the FDA for its cultivated meat, marking the product’s safety. While not an outright approval, this step signaled a positive regulatory trend.

Chef prepares cultivated meat 3D bioprinted by Aleph Farms.

Aleph Farms and Mitsubishi Bring Cultivated Meat to Japan. Image courtesy of Aleph Farms.

2023: A Year of Breakthroughs

In 2023, the agri-food tech sector witnessed significant advancements. GOOD Meat, Eat Just’s cultivated meat division, made considerable strides in the US, receiving the FDA’s approval for its lab-grown chicken. This progress came after rigorous evaluations, and the product is soon to be featured in renowned chef José Andrés’s Washington, DC restaurants, pending USDA endorsements.

Europe, too, experienced inroads, with the Netherlands leading the way as the first EU nation to allow taste tests of cultivated meat products before market approval. Collaborations with key players like Meatable and HollandBIO played a crucial role in this development. The Dutch government’s National Growth Fund earmarked €60 million, further strengthening the country’s cellular agriculture sector.

However, the environmental impact of lab-grown meat came into question. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that lab-grown meat’s environmental impact is likely to be “orders of magnitude higher than retail beef” based on current and near-term production methods.

In other achievements, Germany-based The Cultivated B sought EFSA certification for its cultured sausage. EFSA’s potential endorsement would set industry standards in food safety and innovation, paving the way for other startups.

The future of seafood is being reimagined with innovative alternatives. Japan’s Maruha Nichiro collaborated with Singapore-based Umami Bioworks on cell-cultivated seafood in Asia. Similarly, Steakholder Foods secured a grant, laying the groundwork for developing 3D printed cultured seafood. Venturing further into alternative seafood, Revo Foods and Mycorena captured significant European backing to 3D print mycoprotein as a viable seafood substitute.

With these developments in the cultured meat sectors, the landscape of food production is undeniably shifting, presenting both opportunities and challenges for the global food industry.

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