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‘Our imitation is total’: Spanish tech startup aims to put 3D-printed meat on our plates


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Cocuus, a cutting-edge tech startup headquartered in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Pamplona, embraces the cliches of its sector every bit as willingly as the drunken tourists who blithely entrust themselves to fate, horns and hooves during the Spanish city’s bull-running festival each July.

Table football? Check. Lager and IPA on tap? Check. Inspirational messaging – preferably an Alice in Wonderland homage that reads, “I believe in six impossible things before breakfast”? Check. What about some sci-fi memorabilia, perhaps a Tintin moon rocket and an Alien xenomorph head? Check. Obviously.

Clues as to what sets it apart are to be found on the plates of oysters, tuna, foie gras, bacon, nuggets, steak and pork laid out on the bar. None is quite what it seems. Although the steak and pork do indeed contain meat, they, like the other dishes, are the fruit of years of research into “mimetic foods” that has culminated in a quick burst of 3D printing.

Launched six years ago by Patxi Larumbe and Daniel Rico, Cocuus is on a loud and disruptive quest to fuse science, technology and nutrition. It announced its presence three years ago when the pair decided to bait meat-lovers in Pamplona and beyond by 3D-printing a steak and posting it on social media.

Patxi Larumbe with a 3D machine that produces prawns. Photograph: Markel Redondo/The Guardian

“We knew that if we were going to print something, it needed to be something that would piss people off,” says Larumbe, who left a €100,000-a-year job in construction materials to devote himself to the startup.

“We knew that printing a big steak would piss a lot of people off in Spain – and especially in the north of Spain. So we printed the steak and put it on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. We got 700,000 replies. Most of them were people telling us to stick it up our arses. It was crazy and we were absolutely delighted.”

Better still, it also attracted the attention of the US food company Cargill, which is now one of Cocuus’s main investors. Over the past few years, the Spanish firm – which also specialises in the formulas and machinery behind the printed foods – has designed and made multi-nozzled printers that can create foods that mimic the taste and texture of a meat and fish. Its hardware can also produce meals that stimulate the eyes and appetites of people who have difficulty swallowing by painting moulded purees to make them look like a plate of chicken and chips, or hake and peas.

Fittingly for a collective of self-confessed science fiction geeks, much of the inspiration came from the transporter machines that beam the crew of the USS Enterprise between their ship and planet surfaces. According to Larumbe, the social media steak was the result of toying with the idea of teleporting a steak by turning its cells into data. After carrying out X-rays and cross-sectional scans of a real steak, they pinpointed the locations of the cells that made up the meat, fat and bone, turned that into data and then fed it into a printer.

Larumbe cooks 3D steaks. Photograph: Markel Redondo/The Guardian

“We’re a group of physicists, geometric mathematicians, geeks, lovers of Star Trek and Star Wars who set about researching food,” says Larumbe. “All the food companies research things in a very similar way – with nutritionists and food technologists – and they come to very similar conclusions to what already exists. If you put a bunch of bakers together to come up with a new cake, they’ll come up with something very similar to what already exists and what we know as cake.”

But if you put a physicist together with a nutritionist, a machine maker, a baker and a comedian, he adds, “you’ll get a much newer kind of cake”.

While Cocuus’s bacon and foie gras is made from a thick vegetable paste, its steak contains real beef from the 50kg of meat that are discarded or turned into cat food when a cow is slaughtered. The fat that marbles the steak is made from a vegetable mixture, making it far lower in saturated fat than the real thing.

Larumbe, who exudes confidence in his products as surely as his printers extrude meat and vegetable paste, gives short shrift to many of his putative rivals, dismissing the vegan burger boom of recent years as “a bubble” and pointing out the massive expense and low yields of lab-grown meat.

Cocuus’s 3D-printed beef steaks and secreto Iberico pork contain real meat. Photograph: Markel Redondo/The Guardian

Asked what sets his company apart in an already crowded field, he insists it comes down to scale. Cocuus and its partner Foody’s have sold 80,000 units of their meat-free foie gras and 200,000 units of cholesterol-free vegan bacon since the products appeared on the shelves of Carrefour stores last September. Cocuus also has the production capacity at its factory in the city of Tudela to turn out 1,000 tonnes of bacon and 3,000 tonnes of foie gras a year.

“We’re the first company in the world that has managed to do this on an industrial, rather than an experimental, scale,” says Larumbe.

“Second, our imitation is total – that hasn’t existed until now. You had things for vegetarians, but they were bad. Third, we have scientists here that are coming up with formulas and technologies that are radically different. All of that means that we’re the most advanced company in the world in this field and one that’s working with the biggest international food companies.”

And what of the local reaction in a region where beef is so revered?

Making bacon without pigs and “seeing a bunch of idiots 3D-printing steaks” may not appeal to the farmers of Navarra, Larumbe concedes. But he says many come around when they learn more about the company and understand they could be getting more money for their cows thanks to the new technology that embraces the parts that have traditionally been thrown or fed to the cats.

Then again, spend an hour or two in his company and you get the impression that Larumbe isn’t really that bothered about what other people think.

“Humanity advances because of people who don’t agree with things,” he says. “If you and I agree, there’s no progress. We disagree with everything.”

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