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You Want Synthetic Fries with That 3D-Printed Burger?



Someday you may be eating a filet that was grown not on a feedlot in Iowa, but printed in a lab in Brooklyn.

It will happen sooner than you think, says András Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, a New York-based startup. Forgacs presented his ideas at the 14th annual EmTech MIT, an emerging technology conference hosted by MIT Technology Review in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Forgacs’ first company, Organovo, specialized in 3D bio-printing of human body tissues for use in medical research. With Modern Meadow, he’s moved on to livestock.

“If we can grow skin, we can make leather,” Forgacs said. “If we can grow muscle, we can make meat.”

The process involves taking cell samples from a living cow, growing them in a nutrient-rich substrate over a period of weeks, and then depositing successive layers of meat and connective tissue using a 3D bio-printer to recreate the beef or the hide.

The same process can be applied to any farm-raised animal, and even to fish, Forgacs says.

As an early proof of concept, Modern Meadow created a lab-grown pork chop, which co-founder Gabor Forgacs proceeded to eat on stage at the TED-MED conference in October 2011.

At Google’s Solve for X conference last February, AndráForgacs fed “Steak chips,” a potato chip-style snack made from cultured meat, to Google’s Sergey Brin, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel.

“So far, none of them have died,” he joked.

Infographic: What does it take to make a quarter-pound burger
Infographic: What does it take to make a quarter-pound burger

(Modern Meadow)

The environmental and social benefits of printing meat instead of farming it are compelling. Livestock account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, consume 8 percent of the world’s potable water, and use a third of all available land. Traditional leather tanning processes also produce large amounts of toxic waste, much of which can be avoided by growing hairless hides in the lab, Forgacs says.

Modern Meadow isn’t the only company with a stake in fake steak. In August 2013, researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands served up a burger built from stem cells at a cookout in London. The cost of producing that burger? More than $300,000, not including fries or a shake.

The first products Modern Meadow sells will be lab-grown leather, a much easier sell to consumers than meat, Forgacs says. But commercial production of cultured cow hides into shoes and purses is still likely years away for the 15-person company, which still needs to refine the process, reduce the cost, and figure out how to do it at scale.

Persuading people to eat meat that was printed in a lab, not raised in a field, is a much tougher hurdle, Forgacs admits.

Just don’t call it synthetic steak. It’s made from real cow, even if it never had the chance to go “moo.”

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.