Premium wagyu beef is known for its rich and buttery flavor, owing to its marbling. Photo: Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A group of scientists in Japan has created wagyu beef in a lab using 3D printing technology, a method that they said could provide a more sustainable alternative to the sought-after steak and other meat products, albeit much more expensive.“We wanted to start with wagyu beef because it’s representative of Japanese cuisine,” Michiya Matsusaki, a professor of applied chemistry at Osaka University who co-authored a recent paper about the printing technique, told VICE World News.
“With 3D printing, we can achieve the marbling this cut of steak is known for, using more sustainable methods,” he added.The researchers said they were able to increase or decrease the beef’s marbling—the white lines and flecks of fat that make quality cuts of wagyu so delicious and expensive—as they pleased with 3D printing. The meat industry is one of the key contributors to climate change. Livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, more than 40 percent of which comes specifically from cattle breeding, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.But Matsusaki said steaks created using 3D printing technology and lab-grown stem cells would require fewer cows and farms.To make wagyu in a lab, the scientists first extracted two types of cells from cows’ cheeks. Satellite cells, responsible for muscle growth, were used to form the muscle—the red part of a steak. Adipose stem cells taken from the cows’ fat were made into the beef’s veins and fat “marbles.”After extraction, scientists combined the cells with artificial tendon tissue, made of collagen, to make the rolls of wagyu beef fiber, a process known as 3D bioprinting. They then manually pieced the rolls together to closely resemble the real deal—almost like building Legos—and dyed them red for the final touch.
One day, Matsusaki said, customers should be able to have as much fat or lean meat as they want in their steak.“Households can decide, ‘I had a lot of oily food today, I want less fat on my wagyu,’ or ‘I feel like eating fatty meat,’” he said. But mass production is still a distant goal. This 3D printed beef, measuring five by five millimeters, cost the scientists 100,000 yen ($906) to make. For comparison, high-grade wagyu can cost upwards of $200 per pound. The glue and serum used to make the beef is also inedible, although Matsusaki said that a version of the beef ready for the dinner table would be made by the end of the year.Prices could be brought down in the future, Matsusaki said, but he did not think 3D-printed wagyu would ever get cheap enough to be an affordable alternative to the real deal, despite what he said was its smaller carbon footprint and customizable qualities.Aurélien Forget, a materials scientist who studies 3D bioprinting and who is not associated with the study, said the research showed new advances in replicating how cells were naturally organized, which is key in achieving the desired texture of food. However, he said, it would be challenging to scale the production of the 3D-printed beef because printing alone did not produce the meat slab.“You also have a step where the authors manually assemble the 3D-printed fibers and glue it with transglutaminase,” he told VICE World News. Transglutaminase, also known as meat glue, is a food additive that bonds proteins together.But if everything goes according to plan, Matsusaki said the wagyu beef could be commercially available in small quantities as soon as 2025, and he’s eager to be the first to dig in.“We might like to have a tasting party to try it,” he said. Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.