Spanish startup Novameat announced today that it had developed a realistic plant-based pork product with the same texture as real meat. And it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc across all sectors of the food supply chain, but the hardest hit area might be the meat industry. Employee infections are forcing processing plants to shut down, which is spurring meat shortages. At the same time, some consumers are worried about the link between eating animals and infectious diseases.
But all these misfortunes for the meat industry mean that the plant-based meat industry could be at the cusp of its heydey. That’s especially true for pork. The pork industry was already struggling with the outbreak of African Swine Fever, which decimated the pig population in China. Now major manufacturing plants, from Tyson to Hormel, are facing a new enemy with COVID-19.
Novameat, which uses 3D printing technology to create realistic meat alternatives, sees this as an opportunity. That’s why they recently developed a plant-based pork prototype. The meatless pork is made with pea and rice protein isolates, olive oil, seaweed extract and beet juice and produced with Novameat’s signature micro-extrusion technology to mimic the texture of meat.
So far, Novameat has chiefly been focusing on developing 3D printed steaks, though it has yet to bring any of its products to market. The startup raised an undisclosed amount of funding last year and has plans to sell its plant-based meat to restaurants as well as to license out its printing technology to bigger companies.
In an email, Novameat CEO Giuseppe Scionti told me that they decided to create this pork prototype “in a moment of the need for flexibility and adaptability in the proteins market, and seen the global disruption in pork meat supply.”
But the new product isn’t just motivated by the coronavirus pandemic. Scionti also noted that Novameat is trying to demonstrate that their tech is versatile enough to create a wide range of plant-based meat and seafood products.
Scionti told me that, despite the pandemic, they’re still sticking with their original timeline to sell 3D printed plant-based steak to a few restaurants in Europe by the end of 2020. That might be ambitious depending on when restaurants reopen, and what they look like when they do. I’m not sure if high-tech vegan steaks (or pork) fit into that new normal, with restaurants operating at reduced capacity and slimmed-down staff numbers.
However, Novameat’s other sales channel could actually be nudged forward by COVID-19. The company plans to license out its 3D printing technology to plant-based meat manufacturers. Scionti told me in January that would be over the next two to three years, but considering how alternative protein companies gaining investment left and right, and Big Meat companies like Cargill are investing more and more in plant-based, I could see that timeline getting moved up.
One selling point for 3D printed meat in particular is that its production is largely automated. In fact, Scionti noted that they developed the pork alternative entirely while working from home. In a time social distancing orders are keeping many from their R&D labs, 3D printing doesn’t have to slow down. That could make it printed meat alternatives a more appealing option in the post-coronavirus world.