We are entering a brave new world of food design and regulation brought to us through the mechanical development and visual artistry of 3D printing. As with any new medium, understanding what we confront and its regulation lag behind the medium’s implementation.

3D printing, also referred to as “additive manufacturing” or “rapid prototyping,” is the process of making three-dimensional objects from digital designs. Two of the most common types of printers are “disposition printers,” which deposit layers of materials until the 3D object is built, and “binding printers” which build the object by binding, usually with adhesive or laser fusing, the underlying layers, to create a whole object at the end of the process.

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Perhaps this seems pretty straightforward, but delving into the 3D printing of food highlights the multiple aspects of this process, and underscores the potential challenges associated with fitting 3D-printed food into FDA’s current regulatory paradigm.

When it comes to printing food, the first step involves developing a computer-aided design (“CAD”) file, or animation modeling software, which tells the printer what to make and how to make it.  After the finished design file is sent to the 3D printer, the user chooses a specific material. Depending on the printer and the end food product, the material may be food pastes, dry ingredients, raw ingredients to be cooked (dough, pasta, even raw scallops), or sugar-based materials (chocolates, candies). Additionally, the printer may require binding materials or a laser to “mold” the ingredients into the finished product.  Binding materials might involve rubber, plastics, paper, polyurethane-like materials, metals and more.

What a revolution 3D printing is for the food industry, which is always looking for a competitive edge or a game changer to surprise and delight its customers. The possible uses of 3D printing are limited only by the imagination of the user. Here are just a few applications:

  • “Personalized” foods for identifiable categories of individuals who may require special dietary needs, such as the elderly, athletes, diabetics, or pregnant women;
  • Specialized environments, where space or budget limitations or program needs (think NASA and requirements for space meals) limit production;
  • Alternative ingredients and substitutes required for vegan/vegetarian or other special diet options;
  • Novelty items, such as special shapes or personalized messages within a food product.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, several different 3D food printers were on display, using a variety of food media, from pastes to special sugars. The printers can be adjusted to fill consumer orders with a precision and a flair heretofore unimaginable. Think of imbedding a completely intelligible message inside a cake or a candy – anything from “Will you marry me?” to “We’re having a baby” or “It’s over.”

The FDA will want to be involved in the regulation of this nascent technology, and will develop policies and protocols to address its applications.  While FDA has a long-standing history of regulating the safety of foods and food ingredients, an issue that both FDA and industry will need to address is whether, and if so, how, 3D-printed foods and 3D printers can fit into the current regulatory framework governing foods. Given the new technology and new materials used for 3D-printed foods, we believe the regulatory pathway is likely to raise many more questions and considerations for both the regulators and industry.

From an IP perspective, trade secret issues may be crucial to maintaining a competitive edge in 3D food printing (i.e., Coca-Cola). And copyright may become more important to 3D-printed food designs.