A convincing steak remains the white whale of the alternative meat industry. But startup Redefine Meat believes it can print one.
The problem with alternative meat, one of the food industry’s fastest growing sectors, isn’t the burgers and breakfast sausages. Making ground beef is easy. Trying to replicate a steak — its fibrous texture, delicate marbling, and rich, meaty taste — is where the greatest challenge lies.
As other companies struggle to concoct convincing imitations of ribs, brisket, and sirloin, Israeli entrepreneur Eshchar Ben-Shitrit believes you can simply print them out — literally. His startup Redefine Meat has developed 3D printing technology that uses digital blueprints and biological “inks” to generate prime cuts that are all but indistinguishable from the animal-based originals.
“We only have one thing that is important for us: to develop really good tasting meat,” says Ben-Shitrit. “At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Is the meat tasty or not?’”
Working with industry experts, restaurants, and chefs, Eshchar Ben-Shitrit aims to finally achieve the holy grail of fake meat: a decent steak.
The flavor of change
By now, the environmental impact of beef almost goes without saying. The cattle industry is the biggest source of deforestation in the Amazon and one of the world’s largest sources of methane gas, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Pastures for cows and other livestock take up more than a quarter of the planet’s terrestrial land; 30% of all agriculture goes toward feed crop cultivation.
“The best technology [we] have to convert plant proteins into meat are animals. They make it really tasty without you needing to do anything,” Ben-Shitrit says. “They just pollute the planet, and they need to die in the process.”
Developing a meat technology that can beat animals at their own game goes hand in hand with expanding the variety of synthetic meats on the market, argues Jacy Reese Anthis, co-founder of the Sentience Institute and author of “The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System.”
“We need a rich and diverse plant-based food landscape,” he says. “This can be as simple as the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, both of which have different culinary profiles and production methods. But it also means that there’s untapped market potential in all the areas, including steak…We need companies working on both ends of the spectrum.”
Currently, the most popular synthetic meats come in the form of burgers, sausages, and nuggets, made with a process called “extrusion”, where flavor, not texture is the primary concern. And while the plant-based meat industry is slowly edging its way closer toward more nuanced mimicry, the textures and structures into which animal metabolisms build their proteins and fats have always remained just out of reach.
“The structure and texture of meat is the most challenging goal of plant-based food, so I’m excited about anyone focused on that area,” Anthis continues.
Redefine Meat’s 3D printers tackle the problem of structure and texture in a whole new way. Its printers are able to lay down strands of the ingredient inputs (the edible “inks”) into intricate recreations of the structure we find in steak. The technology is far from creating a perfect replica, but it’s one step closer to building out the diversity of textures we find in a single cut of beef.
Beyond its own scientists and engineers, Redefine Meat has found an unlikely ally in butchers and chefs — experts on the intricate landscapes contained within every cut. These industry collaborators have proved to be essential partners in developing the flavor and texture to match animals’ meat.
“[Chefs] can exactly explain what in the flavor, what part of the fat reminds them of what part of the animal,” Ben-Shitrit says. “They’re trained in tasting and eating, but they’re also much more trained in providing feedback.”
Eventually, Redefine Meat plans to install its refrigerator-sized printers in restaurant kitchens. But it won’t sell a final, one-size-fits-all product. Rather, the company will adjust the formula, texture, and structure according to the needs of the chefs who will end up cooking the printed steaks.
The post-meat market
“It’s a very unique technology, versus building clever ways to incrementally change the existing technology effectively,” said Costa Yiannoulis, Redefine Meat board member and investment director at alternative protein-focused venture firm CPT Capital, which led an initial round of $6 million in their seed funding for Redefine Meat. With that funding, the company is now in the process of transitioning from being a purely research and development startup to a market-facing company. It plans to have its steaks in kitchens by the end of the year.
But the company has some hurdles to overcome. For starters, people are notoriously slow to adopt technological innovations in the food industry, points out Michael Siegrist, a professor of consumer behavior at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “With food, the bottom line is completely different because the new technologies are added to the old ones. I mean, we all still do barbecue. There is no real reason for doing this; we all have electric ovens in our houses. And nevertheless we still barbecue as people did 200,000 years ago,” he says.
For the foreseeable future, Redefine Meat’s printers will be limited to commercial kitchens and its steaks to restaurant menus. Ordinary diners will not be able to pick one up at the grocery store and toss it on their home grills anytime soon.
But even if 3D printed steaks won’t totally replace those made from live cows, the addition of new technology is essential to the “collective chomping down on factory farming,” as Anthis puts it. “Despite the splash of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, we see little if any drop in meat consumption. I think that the first quarter of the 21st century isn’t a matter of displacing animal agriculture, but rather building infrastructure to overhaul the food system in the second quarter of the century.”
For now, Ben-Shitrit is taking things one step at a time.
Even when Redefine Meat’s printers are whirring away in restaurant kitchens, the company will keep improving, says Ben-Shitrit. Removing the cow from the supply chain is a good start but not enough. Modern agriculture, beyond animal farming, l is extremely inefficient and a large source of human-caused carbon emissions.
“You have the same waste, the same inefficiency and the same ancient way of dealing with products that don’t exist in any other industry, then you’re only a part, and the solution is not a full solution.”
But in the short term, Ben-Shitrit will be happy with a decent steak. After almost three years, he says the company is nearly there.
“Today I tasted something that was the best I tasted in the two-and-a-half-years,” he says. “When you taste something really good, it’s mind blowing.”