3D printed steak chips? It’s enough to make me go all hippy and vegetarian…

Human inventiveness seems limitless these days, so I wasn’t surprised to discover the other week that food technologists have been experimenting with 3d printed meat – currently produced, at astronomical expense, in the shape of chips.

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).
I’ll have my chicken free-range and wild, thanks…

Artificial food has been a long-standing SF staple – brilliantly played by Arthur C. Clarke in his hilarious 1961 satire ‘Food Of The Gods’. All food in this future was synthesised to the point where the very idea of eating something once alive had become offensive. Even the word ‘carnivore’ had to be spelt, lest it nauseate listeners, and synthetic meat had names unassociated with animals. In classic Clarke fashion, of course, there was a twist. Food synthesisers could produce anything. And there was this synth-meat called ‘Ambrosia Plus’, which sold like hotcakes until a rival company found out what the prototype was… (I won’t spoil the fun other than to point out that there’s a verb for a specific sort of meat-eating starting with ‘c’, and it isn’t ‘carnivore’.)

In the real world, 3D printed meat isn’t synthetic – it’s made of actual animal muscle cells which are artificially bred and then sprayed, in layers, to produce the product. Currently it’s a lab technique and the obvious challenge for its gainsayers is to find ways of industrialising it. Also of getting customers past the ‘ewwww’ factor of eating animal tissue bred in a petri dish and vomited into chip shape through a nozzle.

To my mind the key challenge is identifying the total energy requirement – printed meat may NOT be as efficient as current ‘natural’ methods of getting meat to your dinner table, where a large part of the energy comes from sunlight, via a grassy paddock and the digestive systems of ruminants.

Mercifully, we haven’t been told ‘This Is The Way ALL Meat Will Be Eaten In Future’, ‘The Future Is Now’ and other such dribble. Predictions of that sort pivot off the ‘recency effect’, by which whatever just happened is seen as far more important than it really is when set against the wider span of history. We fall into that trap quite often – often, these days, over products launched on the back of commercial ambition. What really happens is that the ‘way of the future’ idea joins a host of others. All of these then blend together and react with society in ways that eventually – and usually generationally – produces changes, but inevitably not the ones predicted by the ‘Future Is Here’ brigade.

In one of the ironies of the way we usually imagine our future, things that do dramatically change the way we live – such as the internet – are often not seen coming, or touted as game-changers. Certainly not in the way that food pills, flying cars and the cashless society have been.

As for artificial meat – well, I expect that if – IF – it can be industrialised, it’ll find a home in hamburger patties. But there seems little chance of it being mistaken for the real deal, still less supplanting a delicious slab of dead cow seared sirloin on the dinner table.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “3D printed steak chips? It’s enough to make me go all hippy and vegetarian…

  1. Considering the cardboard imitations used by some fast food chains on their burgers, patties containing actual animal cells (3D-printed or not) can only be an improvement😉

    1. There’s a Certain Fast Food Chain here in NZ (and which, I am quite sure, is also well featured in SA, but maybe not where you are?) that genuinely uses ground beef and nothing else in its patties. Which begs questions because while the resulting burgers are OK by “fast food burger standards”, that’s a relative term. I speculate that the equation for this sort of thing is “excellent quality food goes in”, then “something horrible happens”, and “it is served”.

      1. If it’s the chain I’m thinking of, yes we have them here, but my town is too small to warrant a branch of its own. We have another chain called Steers. They really do use pure ground beef patties. Their burgers taste incredible, but understandably they’re also a bit on the pricey side.

  2. Maybe one day there’ll be the equivalent of a Turing Test for food: can we distinguish the artificially produced chicken-tasting pattie from the real chicken-tasting pattie.

    I heard a programme on the radio a couple of weeks ago in which scientists talked about producing whole animals with 3d printers. Sometimes, you give someone a bit of technological innovation and they go berserk.

    I still haven’t heard anyone say 3d printing will replace manufacturing, but I’m sure a techno-nerd has probably already said it somewhere in the world.

    Chris

    1. I gather the ISS has got one – the idea is that they can make parts that might otherwise have to be sent up from Earth. Like you I suspect it’s a bit easy to get carried away with the idea – I’m not convinced the technique’s going to be a sole answer to manufacturing, not least because it’s limited to producing solid objects formed of some substance (typically thermoplastic) that can be squirted through a nozzle. A boon for plastic kit hobbyists (yes, yes, I’ll be able to get that 1/700 HMS Nile kit after all) but I suspect of otherwise limited application as the tech currently stands.

  3. I’ve seen a couple of documentaries recently on 3D printed food in Spain, where they’re looking to develop the technology for mass production. Looked really cool. It was a few weeks ago now, but I remember the canapes looked pretty good, and apparently tasted good too. One was a Horizon documentary. Can’t remember where I saw the other one.

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