Here is why 3D-printed meat is relevant: An interview with Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, CEO of Redefine Meat

  • Here is why 3D-printed meat is relevant An interview with Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, CEO of Redefine Meat (redfinemeat-46.jpg)

Photo: Redefine Meat

With the launch of Redefine Meat’s plant-based products simultaneously in London, Berlin and Amsterdam in November 2021, 3D-printed meat has arrived in Europe.

We took the opportunity to talk to Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, CEO of Redefine Meat. We covered a lot of ground, hence there is a lot to take away for you.
Consider reading this interview if you are interested in learning how Redefine approaches printing steaks, how good the product currently compares to “traditional meat”, what challenges they currently face, what future its CEO envisions for 3D-printing of meat, how it compares in terms of sustainability and why Ben-Shitrit does not believe in cultivated meat.

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    Photo: Redefine Meat

Welcome Eshchar and thanks for taking the time to chat with us in this most certainly busy time. Redefine Meat just debuted its 3D-printed steak in Europe in November 2021, congrats to that. Would you give us some insights into what 3D-printing of food actually comprises?

Thanks for the congratulations and sure, happy to provide some insight.
Let’s start with a little bit of background and be aware that I oversimplify here to keep it digestible. 3D printing, in the traditional sense, is known as additive manufacturing. It has initially been developed to efficiently translate a digital design created on a computer into a physical form or shape. While simulating on a computer has a lot of benefits, there are industries, e.g. aviation, furniture, medicine that require a physical prototype for testing before mass production is started.
But in our opinion, the application of 3D-printing for food should serve a different purpose than mere focus on the shape.

Okay, what purpose do you see for 3D-printing technology in the food industry?

When we started, we asked ourselves: Which criteria are important in food? And for food, the shape is important, but texture, taste, nutritional composition, costs, and efficiency rank higher.
So, we started with the questions: How are texture or taste printed? How can we take ingredients that have flavor and texture X and through 3D-printing create flavor and texture Y? Let’s take a steak as example.

A steak, from a technical perspective, is a complex structure, a matrix, built with various components. So, we broke the components down into muscle, fat, and blood. But if we just mix them, we get a useless paste. We also need to arrange the components in a specific way, e.g. blood and fat surrounded by muscle in a certain ratio.
Both steps together allow us to create a three-dimensional model in which every component is placed in a specific location. This enables us to build and experiment with a database of combinations to achieve the desired properties. How does Sirloin differ from Ribeye in terms of placement of components? How do texture, taste, cooking behavior, or color change if we alter the arrangement of the components?
So, we use 3D-printing to the purpose of developing a product with certain mechanical properties that no one knows how to manufacture besides the cow. And since we work primarily with digital models, we are able to create millions of sets of those mechanical properties and develop quickly.

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    Photo: Redefine Meat

Very interesting. What you haven’t mentioned so far are changes to the recipe or the ingredients. How easy can you incorporate different kinds of proteins or fats into your product?

It's a good question. In theory, it's easy because we have a recipe for the protein, we have a recipe for the fat, we have a recipe for the blood. And instead of the pea protein, let's take it out, put potato protein in and work on the recipe for a month. But right now, we do not like to change the recipe as it brings too much complexity into the process. The process consists of three parts: ingredients, printer, and software.
If we change the software it can be done quickly and easily, with almost no costs. If we change the printer, there is the need for development, purchasing, integrating, and testing. A lot of effort. And if we change ingredients, it might affect all parts of the process.
In the next five years we will make changes to all the elements, but right now we focus on incorporating the feedback via the software to adapt and advance quickly.

When preparing for the interview I read a lot about the challenges of 3D-printing in food. Could you elaborate a little on the challenges you face?

First is complexity in printing. So far, there have only been 3D-printers in history that can handle either multiple components or high viscosity. But we combine both. So, we needed to pioneer that.
Second is food safety as people eat the 3D-printed product. Therefore, we need regulatory approval for all markets we enter.
Third is costs and efficiency. As mentioned before, 3D-printing was originally developed for prototyping a model. Costs and time are less relevant in that context. But in food, we want to eat the model and quite a lot of it. Hence, we need to be fast and produce at scale. And we are able to do it. In our current process we can produce 10kg of 3D-printed food-safe meat within an hour.

So, you would print 10kg of wagyu steak per hour?

We do not directly print the steak, but a larger piece, we call it slab, that is then cut into steaks. The size depends on the kind of steak that is wanted, usually 2-4kg. A ribeye is usually bigger than a tenderloin.

And what do you do with it after printing?

Once, it comes out of the printer, it is treated like normal meat. Cook it, cut it, grill it, whatever is preferred.

And the question of questions: How close would you say are you compared to the “traditional meat” version?

We put a very high bar for ourselves. So, we have a lot of room to improve the quality, the flavor mostly, and to be accurate with the texture and the juiciness. But it's already a great product that chefs in Israel and in Europe have given amazing feedback. Especially in fine dining.

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    Photo: Redefine Meat

What about costs and price?

The cost structure is very interesting, because theoretically, if we would do it on a larger scale now, buying large quantities of ingredients and being more efficient in the supply chain, it would already be cheaper than meat. However, our process currently is optimized for quality not cost and we do not produce at scale. But we compete with expensive meat, whole cuts not side stream products. In the beginning, it will be slightly more expensive than the cheapest kind of meat and it will be about as expensive as a good quality meat product. When we start scaling, the price will go down.

What's your goal? Do you want to sell the meat, or do you also want to sell the technology?

100% meat. We are a meat company.
Selling the standalone technology is not interesting. Nobody can just take the technology and create a long-term business out of it. It is way too complex.

I understand that the printer currently has the size of 1-2sqm. What could you envision it to look like in five or ten years? Is it something I would have at home? I put in a capsule and I get a printed steak like today’s coffee machinery?

In theory, in every technology, it can be scaled up or scaled down. The real question is not what the technology can do, because we believe that with time and talent of people and money, everything can be done in technology. The question is why. We want to replace the cow and we want to be a part of the meat industry. And probably only few people have a cow or a pig at home. Today, we focus more on how to move across the supply chain to become more efficient, more global, and to lower costs. Hence, we rather scale up to do 100kg an hour, instead of ten and might be found in every city or in every supermarket with a printer. But it is unlikely that there will be home meat printers any time soon.

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    Photo: Redefine Meat

In your process, you need to take the ingredients, you need to prepare them in a certain way, you need to make sure that they are food safe, and then you need to print it. How does your product compare in terms of sustainability?

We started the analysis internally and now have a third party independently doing a complete life cycle assessment. Since we compare against beef, it’s dramatically lower already and will further improve as we go. But we do not yet share the figures.

Eager to see it eventually. A more technical question again. How does 3D-printing compare to scaffolding?

In cultured meat development, they create a scaffold and then feed the cells and the cells grow within the given structure. We instead use plant-based ingredients and print the entire product at once. In theory, our technology could be used to print large scaffolds for meat cultivation. But I am not convinced that it will be necessary. Assessing the quality of plant-based today and assuming it continues to improve, as it will, I do not see the advantage of cultivated meat. In addition, it has a lot of scientific challenges to overcome.

You do not see a case for cultivated meat at all?

I do, but rather as an ingredient than an entire product. It is much more efficient to cultivated one type of cells individually instead of a combination of them requiring different environments to grow in.
The way we see it, it will be plant-based 95% and five percent will be added from cultivation, probably fat. If we can get cultured fat, we will incorporate it into our products.

Eshchar, it was a pleasure. Thanks a lot for the insights and your time.

Find more information about Redefine Meat here.

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