June 20, 2019
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have normalized the concept that 'meat' may no longer come from live animals. But some companies have taken that notion farther, growing meat directly from cells.
That next step for meat alternatives will apparently include fish.
Companies like Wild Type, BlueNalu, and Finless Foods wager that, in the age of Silicon Valley-masterminded plant-based burgers, there’s space and hunger for seafood grown in the lab.
“Our mission is basically to create the most delicious, the most sustainable, and cleanest fish and meat on the planet,” Wild Type co-founder Aryé Elfenbein told Cheddar. “We start with cells that come from fish. We grow them in nutrients ー kind of like a nutritious type of Gatorade ー and enable them to turn into things like muscle and fat, and then ultimately, the fish that we’re able to enjoy.”
The seafood market faces many of the same challenges that have propelled demand for meat alternatives, including health concerns, unease surrounding animal cruelty, and the environmental impact of farming.
Badly-managed fish farms can harm local ecology, while fishing in the wild can damage sea habitats and cause the underpopulation ー and potential decimation ー of a fish species.
Along with concerns about the ethics of meat consumption, the nascent industry is putting forward that with a rising global population, current supply sources, both farmed and wild fish, won’t be able to keep pace.
Fish consumption per capita has doubled over the past 50 years, according to research from the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, a branch of the European Union.
Lab-grown fish could also avoid harmful contaminants that can be found in both wild and farmed fish, including mercury, toxins, parasites, and even tiny pieces of plastic caused by ocean pollution.
Wild Type, with $3.5 million fundraised to date according to Crunchbase, has focused its initial efforts on salmon. But the company’s real innovation, should it succeed, is to streamline a process for growing meat from cells that will produce a wide variety of products.
The lab-grown seafood industry is still small, but it has seen some signs of promise.
BlueNalu, a startup founded in 2017, has said that it is months away from producing a batch of lab-grown amberjack and mahi-mahi. The company recently raised $4.5 million and announced that it was expanding its facilities.
Meanwhile, Finless Foods, another lab-grown seafood competitor, is now producing bluefin tuna.
But there are key obstacles, namely cost, taste, and convincing people to eat fish that’s not from the ocean.
“This is basically meat that’s grown outside of an animal, which seems strange,” said Elfenbein. “It is quite different from the plant-based alternatives that you’re seeing.”
“We’re creating real meat, directly from the cells. And, in the end, it’s the same thing that you would get from an animal,” he added.
The company is hoping to emphasize its product’s versatility. At a June tasting dinner, it prepared myriad salmon dishes, including poke, rolls, and tartare, marking the first time that Wild Type produced a pound of product for one event.
But the salmon roll produced for that evening alone cost about $200 to make. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reported that it costs Finless Fish about $4,000 to produce a pound of tuna.
“It is a bit more expensive than what we’re used to paying at our favorite sushi restaurants,” said the co-founder Justin Kolbeck. “Our goal is to really get the cost down to the point where people don’t have to pay a premium for the products that we’re making.”
Next steps will involve scaling up some of the technology involved and automating some of their processes. Kolbeck also emphasized that Wild Type plans to find ways to lower the cost of the nutrients required by its salmon's science.
“Our field is still at the kitchen-scale, where we’re making pounds of product now, which by the way is a big step forward,” said Kolbeck. “We’re testing the products, we’re getting input. We’re iterating. And I think what’s coming next for all us are some small-scale launches in partner restaurants.”