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I am becoming increasingly fascinated by 3D printing revolution

Using open-source code and digital designs people are using relatively inexpensive 3D printers to manufacture literally thousands of products right from their living room. You name it, people are making it. Seemingly nothing is impossible: Here's a guy who made a telescope mostly out of 3D parts. Wild! 

Many 3D observers suggest the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated 3D printing. Now we learn it's just a hop, skip, and a jump from churning out metal and plastic parts to wait for it ... ribeye steaks.

Ribeye steaks???  

Israeli company Aleph Farms revealed to the world last month it has used 3D bioprinting technology to print rib-eye from live animal tissue cultures.

Up till now most alternative protein products have relied on plant-based substitutes to create things like vegan chicken nuggets and vegan beef patties. Even Big Meat has gotten in on the action with companies like Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue and Hormel churning out what the livestock industry likes to disdainfully call "fake meat."  The North American Meat Institute wrote the USDA last November asking that FSIS look into the labeling issue, presumably to head off the possibility that 3D printed steaks will be labeled "meat."

Right now a lot of this 3D meat printing is cost-prohibitive for commercial markets, especially when it comes to whole-meat muscle cuts.  

Last December Singapore gave San Francisco startup company Eat Just, Incthe green light on exporting laboratory-grown chicken bites. If you're in Singapore you can drop by the only place on the planet at the moment selling the new 3D printed nuggets – the 1880 club. Four – yeah, just four – of these lab-grown nuggets will set you back $23.

Still, San Diego-based BlueNalu thinks it can deliver to consumers cell-based fish later this year.  

And last month, another Israeli startup, Future Meat, said it had lowered the production cost of a quarter-pound chicken breast to just $7.50. It hopes to sell chicken fingers in the U.S. next year.

Six years ago, there were just four cell-based meat start-up hopefuls. Today the Good Food Institute reports there are about seventy.

But there is a huge IF for all these 3D meat-printing-wannabes. Potentially the fly in the ointment is none of this gee-whiz technology has received Food and Drug Administration or USDA review and approval.  

In March 2019 after a huge taffy pull between the FDA and USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service over the regulation of livestock and poultry cultured cells for human consumption, the two agencies established a joint regulatory framework; FDA would regulate cell banks while FSIS is responsible for monitoring the processing, packaging and labeling of cell-based products.

But the wheels of government can turn oh so slowly. So far it's been five months since FDA requested information on labeling of cell culture seafoods. 

But Aleph chief executive Didier Toubia is extremely optimistic the feds will ultimately sign on to 3D animal tissue printing.  Aleph is targeting commercial sales in 2022.

It really goes without saying that paramount will be safety. Gene-edited soybean oil is one thing. 3D printed steaks and chops quite another. FDA and USDA need to get their call on safety correct. Take whatever time is needed to be absolutely sure.  

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.