Patxi Larumbe, Commercial Director of Cocuus System Ibérica, has shown an image of what a 10 Kg 3D bioprinted steak looks like for the company based near Navarre in Spain. Working together with CNTA on this “industrial-scale” development, Cocuus now claims to be able to print cutlets, bacon, lamb ribs, salmon… And to do so at the incredible speed of 8 kilograms per minute. “This project is totally disruptive,” the head of the company confirmed. Cocuus is also working on another version based on pea protein.
Now that the hype has died down a little, we decided to go and take a closer look at the company and its claims. We are firm believers that bioprinted meat, not just vegetable-protein based but also cellular agriculture-based such as the products developed by Cocuus, is an inevitable evolution for the food industry. We have investigated this sector and published a lengthy paper about this topic as far back as 2014. However many claims have been made, and not that many products have actually made it to market thus far. Often the claims far outweigh the actual capabilities, attracting the audience’s appetite for sustainable meat products, but then failing to really deliver. When 3D printing is involved the lines between real and conceptual, tend to blur even more.
Even going beyond the company’s initial claim (“Cocuus is real”), Cocuus seems like a serious company, with a number of experienced mathematicians, engineers and biotechnologist working on several different technological approaches to delivering sustainable and innovative food products.
Patxi Larumbe has shown the Cizur Menor-based company’s 3D bioprinted steak, made from meat cells grown in a bioreactor saying that “this project, on which we are working together with the Centro Nacional de Tecnología y Seguridad Alimentaria (CNTA) is a pioneer in the world, something totally disruptive. And it has a Navarrese stamp.” Also based in Navarre, the CNTA, the National Centre for Food Technology and Safety, is a private non-profit making association established in 1981. The aim of this technological center is to contribute towards improving the competitiveness and quality of the food sector.
The production of this bioprinted steak is based on ‘food to data-data to food’ technology, whereby the pieces are “converted into data” with a CAT scan. They are then put back together by the company’s 3D food printers. Cocuus refers to its technology platforms as MIMETHICA, described as “the first foodtech platform that incorporates multiple technologies and proprietary ingredients (bioinks) in an integrated way for the formulation of novel foods.” With four patents already granted and one in the process of approval, MIMETHICA includes technologies for bioprinting and scaffolding, as well as 2D inkjet printing of edible inks on foods and a 2D/3D laser cutter specifically for foods. Another interesting process developed by Cocuus is SOFTMIMIC, a process that transforms purees into dishes that resemble real food (very useful in particular for the elderly or patients with disabilities).
But the meat cell-based bioprinted steak is definitely the most eye-catching product. Reddish in color and with whitish fatty parts, these cutlets look just like the real thing. This, however, is the actual catch: while bioprinting the steaks from lab-grown meat cells via cellular agriculture is the company’s ultimate goal, Cocuus is currently using cells “harvested” from other meat products.
“We do not solve the problem of making cell cultures, which is still green” revealed Larumbe. “We are developing the technology with which to build 3D meat and fish mimics based on cell masses or meat by-products. As we have not yet found a company to supply us with meat cells, what we have done is to dissociate the cells from pieces of meat and recompose the pieces as we think a cutlet, bacon, lamb ribs or salmon might be,” he said.
It is no small feat: the CT scan gives provides the information on the meal product’s structure, showing the arrangement of the different elements that make up the piece – muscle, fat and vascularisation. From there, the food 3D printers reconstruct the piece, modifying the morphology of the food according to requirements., for example when it comes to reducing the percentage of fat or vascularization. “We are at an early stage, but these are the foods of the future. We are not trying to get someone to eat a 3D bioprinted steak against their will in a restaurant but to democratize meat consumption among those who can’t access it,” said Larumbe.