- We tried cell-grown, a.k.a “cultivated,” salmon from food-tech startup Wildtype. It looked and tasted real.
- Cell-grown fish is what it sounds like: It’s fish meat that’s grown directly from fish cells.
- It’s “cultivated” meat, not caught, and the companies making it think it’s the future of seafood.
As I wait to sit down with the founders from San Francisco-based food tech startup Wildtype, a team member greets me with a small plastic container in hand.
“Do you want to see it before our sushi chef prepares it for you?” he says. He hands me a pair of latex gloves and carefully opens the round plastic container to reveal Wildtype’s first innovation: a cut of sushi-grade salmon meat that was “cultivated,” or grown from cells. No fish were caught or killed to make it.
“You can pick it up,” he says. I do so, bewildered at how stunningly similar it looks, feels, and smells to a cut of real salmon that came from an actual fish. It tastes nearly indistinguishable too. That’s because, according to ambitious cultivated meat companies, it is real meat. And they believe the future of fish is cultivated, not caught.
It was only a decade ago that cultivated meat – also referred to as cultured meat, cell-based meat, clean meat, lab meat, cell-cultured meat, and a host of other names – was a dream conjured up by a few scientists who asked one question: Do we need animals to make meat? Companies like Wildtype want to prove that we don’t.
Today, cultivated meat is in its infancy; but with ambitious entrepreneurs at the helm, backed by hungry sustainability-focused VCs and celebrities, they’re out to prove it’s not just a moonshot. They’re eager to solve pervasive and problematic issues that come along with animal agriculture and aquaculture while finding novel ways to feed our population, currently hovering at 7.8 billion and projected to hit nearly 10 billion by 2050.
While there are cultivated-meat companies focusing on a range of cultured meats, from chicken to beef, some have gone all-in on seafood – envisioning the same fish experience on the plate, but a very different way in which it gets there.
“It’s not really as sci-fi as it sounds; our fish [meat] is not grown in a lab,” Aryé Elfenbein, cofounder of Wildtype, told Insider. He said the process is done in a food facility and looks more like a brewery than it does a science lab.
To get the end product, which is a piece of sushi-grade salmon, a small sample of cells are taken from a fish. Wildtype uses the same cells that came from a Pacific salmon three years ago, and after initial cells are sourced, they can be used over and over again.
Those cells are put into a bioreactor, which looks like steel fermentation tanks used to brew beer or kombucha. The cells are given a mixture of sugar, fats, proteins, electrolytes, minerals, and other nutrients to help cells grow.
Cells are then placed into plant-based structure scaffolding (basically, three-dimensional structures made of plant ingredients) that guides them to grow into salmon meat. While every company varies in its approach to cultivating meat, this is the basis of the process that is used.
“At the cellular level, the DNA of Wildtype salmon is the same as the DNA of a conventional salmon,” Elfenbein said. What that translates into for a chef preparing the fish, or a consumer eating it, is a piece of fish with nearly the same texture and nutrient composition as a traditional fish.
“It’s quite comparable to conventional fish, with the same amount of fats, and also omega-3 fatty acid, and a little lower in protein,” Elfenbein said. But what’s just as important is what’s not in cultivated fish; it’s void of antibiotics, heavy metals, toxins, microplastics and other contaminants often found in traditional wild-caught or farmed fish.
Besides being a “cleaner” meat, according to companies producing it, cultivated fish aims to address a few very specific issues including overfishing, ocean pollution, and climate change. While aquafarms – fish farms that can be either in marine waters or on land – have emerged to attempt to address some of these issues, they present their own unique and concerning problems with pollution runoff from farms, disease among fish, and heavy use of antibiotics.
Finless Foods, another cultivated seafood company that to date has raised $US25 ($AU34) million, thinks cultivated seafood is a critical part of solving ocean degradation.
“The more consumers that eat cell-cultured and alternative seafood, the better shot we have at achieving our mission of creating a future for seafood where the ocean thrives,” Michael Selden, CEO and cofounder of Finless Foods, told Insider.
While cell-based meat in the US is not on menus or market shelves yet, commercial availability will be coming soon. When that will be depends on how expeditiously the FDA moves.
But one country is already selling cultivated meat: Singapore. Good Meat, which is a division of plant-based leader Eat Just, Inc., got the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultured-meat product in the country. Singapore granted Good Meat’s product approval in 2020, and it currently sells its cultivated chicken product in select restaurants.
While the US awaits FDA approval of cultivated meat, those at the forefront of the industry have a crystal clear vision of what, in their opinion, lies ahead.
“In the future, cell-cultured seafood will be found everywhere from quick-service restaurants and dine-in, to grocery store cases, and other avenues where consumers currently purchase seafood – and maybe some new ones too,” Selden said, adding that he believes cell-cultured seafood will reach price parity with traditional fish, be more affordable, and can be produced anywhere in the world with more consistency.
Most importantly, Selden said, the rise of cultured fish and seafood will ease pressure on our already crisis-level vulnerable ocean.
While numerous studies have found that consumers would try cultivated meat – and people are in fact eating Good Meat’s cultured chicken in Singapore – broad consumer acceptance of cell-based meat and seafood, as well as its ability to scale with an attainable price point, remains to be seen.
Josh Tetrick, cofounder and CEO of Eat Just, Inc. and cultivated-meat subsidiary Good Meat, asks people to look at history when they think about meat as we know it.
“You know, it seemed odd to imagine streaming your music instead of owning it,” says Tetrick. “It seemed strange that an electric car could be faster than the fastest gasoline-powered car. It seemed odd that you might want a lab-made diamond placed on your finger.
“And maybe it seems strange that all the meat that we’ll consume won’t require slaughtering animals. But strange things happen all the time.”