I can’t believe it’s not salmon!

Wildtype sushi salmon

Does ‘seafood’ grown in a lab or created from plant-based materials represent real competition for fish producers? Sandy Neil investigates.

When is “seafood” not actually seafood? Fish Farmer sets out to explore the alternatives to wild-caught and farmed seafood, from plant-based vegan smoked “salmon” to lab-grown salmon sushi that has never been part of a living animal.

With global fisheries under pressure as never before, can cultured cells provide fresh fish without the catch? And as interest in alternative seafoods among consumers, brands and investors grows exponentially, with cellular agriculture projected to become mainstream in the next decade, should salmon farmers be worried?

“Last summer, we gathered with friends, chefs, journalists, and others at Olympia Oyster Bar in Portland, Oregon, to taste the world’s first cell-based salmon,” vaunts the Californian start-up Wildtype, which has been working since 2016 to produce cultured salmon grown in a lab. The dinner was heralded as the largest tasting of lab-grown meat, featuring a menu of ceviche verde, Hawaiian poke, and salmon tartare.

Wildtype’s pilot plant in San Francisco is on “a mission to create the cleanest, most sustainable fish on the planet, starting with salmon”, because oceans are being stressed by overfishing. A single fish could provide food for thousands of people while leaving wild populations untouched.

“We’ve now taken a second big step,” Wildtype announced this summer. “We couldn’t be more excited to unveil the next batch of Wildtype seafood: sushi-grade pacific salmon that’s perfect for sashimi, nigiri, or your favourite salmon roll.”

The product is “incredibly similar to conventional salmon with regard to flavour, aroma, texture and degree of fattiness,” said Wildtype co-founder Aryé Elfenbein. It can be baked, served as raw sashimi, and cold-smoked.

Just like the technology used to growing meat cells for burger or steak, food scientists are now making fish using stem cell biology and tissue engineering. A researcher extracts a biopsy-sized sample of muscle tissue from an animal and isolates pluripotent stem cells, that is cells that are capable of giving rise to more than one different type of cell.

These multifunctional stem cells proliferate in a bioreactor stew fortified with a proprietary mix of nutrients (sugars, salt, amino acids, vitamins). When the muscle cells have replicated to a large enough population, they are grafted to form skeletal muscle-like structures using techniques originally designed for medical applications.

“We start with cells from Pacific salmon and feed them the same nutrients that they would receive in the wild (sugars, fats, proteins, and minerals),” explains Wildtype’s other co-founder Justin Kolbeck. The salmon cells are fed the nutrient broth in stainless steel tanks, of the kind you might see in a microbrewery, before they are harvested and affixed to plant-based structures, called “scaffolds”, to direct the cells’ growth. These help to create the moist, flaky texture of a real fish fillet.

“The result is real salmon, grown directly from cells, with the same nutritional profile and taste as conventional salmon,” Kolbeck adds. “Our hope is to eventually price Wildtype sushi-grade salmon to be competitive with conventional salmon in both restaurants and grocery.”

The company already has a waiting list for seafood fans, chefs and restaurateurs interested in its product.

From the cell stage to harvesting, it can take between three weeks to three months. Conventional fish farming can often take upwards of a year before the fish can be harvested. Should fish farmers be worried about alternative seafoods like cell-cultured salmon?

“While aquaculture provides an important alternative to the declining stocks of wild-caught fish, there are several challenges,” Kolbeck opines. Not least is the fact that a significant share of the feed used in aquaculture comes from wild-caught fish.

“As there is a finite limit to the number of fish we can sustainably pull from our oceans and rivers, aquaculture unfortunately does not solve our global scarcity challenges.” He says Wildtype’s cell-cultivated seafood is just one solution in an “all of the above” approach to sustainable seafood that includes more sustainable aquaculture practices and plant-based seafood.

“Until now, we have not had a seafood alternative that can substitute for wild-caught or farmed seafood,” says Elfenbein, Wildtype’s other co-founder. “Wildtype was founded on the notion that if we give people a delicious, nutritious alternative to conventionally produced seafood, there would no longer be a reason to continue placing undue strain on the biodiversity of our oceans and waterways.”

Cell culture pioneers

Fewer than 10 companies in the world are working on this kind of technology. Most are just a few years old, and only a handful of people have taste-tested their products. But already they are promising to have cell-cultured seafood on consumers’ plates within the decade. That is, in part, because developing a soft and flaky fish fillet is more straightforward than growing the tough muscle tissue of a beef steak, explains Lou Cooperhouse, president and chief executive of cell-cultured seafood company BlueNalu.

“Ultimately, it will be a simpler process to replicate the sensory characteristics of seafood versus red meat,” he said. “Red meat is, literally and figuratively, very tough.”

BlueNalu is hunting the holy grail of the cell-cultured fish industry: bluefin tuna. One of the most overfished species in the world, they are now so rare that prized specimens can sell for well over a million dollars. Growing bluefin tuna fillets on demand would transform its market, Mr Cooperhouse argues.

Earlier this year, BlueNalu raised $60m from its investors, and is building its first pilot production facility in San Diego, where it is based. Cooperhouse estimates the firm could be rolling out fillets of mahi-mahi, yellowtail, red snapper and bluefin tuna to customers in the UK within the decade.

“Fish derive omega-3s and other nutritional benefits from what they eat,” he says. “As a result, the cell-cultured seafood we produce will have the same nutritional profile as conventional seafood.”

In November 2020, Shiok Meats, the world’s first cell-based crustacean meat company based in Singapore, showcased the world’s first ever cell-based lobster meat, served in lobster gazpacho and lobster terrine. It is hoping to commercialise its cell-based products, which include cell-based shrimp, crab, crayfish, next year.

Chief technology officer and co-founder Dr Ka Yi Lang said: “We are committed to bringing this novel technology to the forefront of global food systems, so they are robust enough to feed 10 billion people by 2050.”

Avant Meats, based in Hong Kong, is taking a three-pronged approach. To capture the interest of potential Asian customers, it has developed cell-cultured fish maw, the swim bladder of a fish that is considered a delicacy in China. It has also developed a fish fillet for Western markets, and cell-cultured fish collagen for use in skincare products.

Cell-based meats have developed quickly, but the products still have a long way to go. The technology will need significant advances for companies to eventually mass-produce fillets resembling wild-caught seafood.

Making cell-based seafood is technically complicated and extremely expensive. Another cultured seafood company, Cultured Decadence, located in Wisconsin, USA, plans to make lobster meat. After a year in production, they can make about half a gram from their reactors. They hope to increase output enough to provide public taste tests in the next 12 months. The cost of nourishing fish cells appears to be the biggest factor limiting expansion.

The concoction of salt, sugars, vitamins, and amino acids necessary for these cells to grow introduces a production expense that these start-ups must overcome to achieve their desired scaleup. In 2019, one cell-based company produced a single salmon sushi roll for US$200 when the market value for wild-caught salmon at the time was between $5-9 per kilogram.

“The current cost of production is significantly higher than the cost of conventional salmon,” admits WildType, “And the cultivated seafood industry will certainly require a re-imagination of the underlying design and process of cell cultivation in order to bring costs in line with conventional seafood.”

Greg Murphy, BlueNalu’s Director of Corporate Development & Strategic Partnerships, said: “Today, seafood market pricing is based on supply, making it variable and unpredictable. A consumer is also paying for the parts of the fish that you don’t typically eat like heads, tails, skin, and bones. With BlueNalu seafood, our products will have 100% yield, and it is our goal to achieve price parity to conventional seafood products over time, while providing a steady supply that is predictable, safe, and consistent to meet demand.”

While companies try to find ways to reduce the expense, they are also concerned with whether they will be allowed to call their product “fish”. Producers argue that they have the right to call it meat. The US Federal Meat Inspection Act refers to meat as “any product… made wholly or in part from any meat or portion of the carcass,” which seems to justify the label.

In the UK, the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Association (SSPO) disagrees: ‘It is both misleading and disingenuous to call foods ‘salmon’ or ‘seafood’ when they are clearly nothing of the sort. So our message to consumers is clear: if you want the benefits of a sustainably grown, healthy, nutritious seafood then buy Scottish salmon. Cell-cultured and plant-based alternatives claiming to be salmon are simply poor imitations of the real thing.’

A regulatory dilemma

Governing agencies worldwide are in the process of deciding how to regulate cellular agriculture. Unlike plant-based meat substitutes like Impossible Foods and Beyond Beef, which have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, cell-based, lab-grown meat products have yet to be approved for mass consumption in the US.

In Europe, cell-based products fall under the European Union Novel Food Regulation. In December 2020, the Singapore government approved the sale of Eat Just’s lab-grown chicken, making it the first country in the world to approve such meat consumption on a commercial scale. The approval was expected to be a watershed for approvals from other countries, but that remains to be seen.

Studies are still being performed on how cultured meats will impact the environment. A 2011 University of Oxford study indicated that
cultured meats could generate 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meat. But a later study by the same university suggested that depending on the production and scale, lab-grown meats could lead to higher global temperatures in the long run due to some cultured meat production methods requiring a large amount of energy.

“There is potential in cultured meat and cultured seafood, but it’s not the solution for these urgent problems we are facing now,” says Hanna Tuomisto, a specialist in the environmental impacts of food based at the University of Helsinki. “It will take quite long before these products will be available in supermarkets at a price that most people could afford. We cannot wait for cultured foods to solve the problems.”

Until the costs come down, cell-based seafood will have a difficult time breaking into the market. And even then, research results indicate plant-based products could be more popular. Surveys gathered from consumers who received information on the sustainability of conventional, plant-based, and cell-based meat led researchers to predict respective market shares of 72%, 23%, and 5% for each. A market forecast by the US management consulting firm Kearney had a more positive outlook for cell-based meat, and predicted that in the next 20 years the market share would be split about evenly between the three.

BlueNalu’s CEO Lou Cooperhouse says he is not looking to replace wild-caught or farm-raised seafood, but is aiming to become a third alternative for vegan and vegetarian seafood eaters.

“Consumers are changing. They are looking at health. They are focused on the planet,” Cooperhouse said to NPR. “This is not a fad or a trend — this is happening.”

In consumer surveys, people say they take a product’s sustainability into account when making a purchase. This behaviour has increased by 10% during the pandemic, with consumers saying they are now more conscious of the environment. One of the sustainable shifts many consumers are making is in their dietary choices, eating vegan, for example, to circumvent practices they perceive to be cruel to animals or unsustainable.

If conservation does not win consumers over, cell-based seafood can certainly claim to be clean. Cells grown in a bioreactor would be free from the microplastics and chemical pollution now found in almost every wild-caught fish. That could be enough of an incentive for fish eaters to convert from conventional products.

Cultured meat products will compete with conventionally raised animals for consumer cash, but they will also face-off against the existing plant-based market. Protein sources for plant-based products are relatively inexpensive; however, the post-harvest processing and formulation advancements needed to duplicate the consumer experience of eating meat can be rather pricey. Plant-based fats, flavour enhancers, and colour additives drive up the cost of these meat alternatives. Still, they are presently far more affordable than cell-based meats. Although cell-based meats have the advantage of texture and taste being identical to the real thing, the plant-based market is far ahead in terms of establishing a consumer base.

Moreover, cell agriculture is not yet vegan. The Vegan Society acknowledges that “lab-grown meat and fish have the potential to reduce animal suffering and we understand that it has benefits to animal welfare but as an organisation we fight for an end to all exploitation. As it currently stands the process of cultivated meat and fish is not enough for us to support it.

“There is already a myriad of vegan seafood and fish alternatives that don’t derive from cultivated or lab-grown fish – essentially there are kinder alternatives out there. Lab grown meat and fish is a great excuse to do nothing in the interim whilst waiting for an affordable and acceptable alternative.”

“Cell culture is not without its challenges,” admits Wildtype: “There are still some animal-based components used in much of the research across the industry and the brewery systems are still quite energy intensive. But it’s very early days and we are confident that these issues will be mitigated as the technology develops.”

Plant-based alternatives

Plant-based diets have evolved beyond traditional vegetarian and vegan fare as more people choose to avoid animal protein. An April report for the Good Food Institute states that total plant-based retail sales reached $7bn and grew 27% over the past year—almost double the growth rate in US retail food sales.

Many plant-based seafood companies are already vying for our plates. In June, UK food giant Birds Eye expanded its fast-growing plant-based Green Cuisine range with a first-ever attempt to create a vegan version of its fish fingers.

“Shoppers are increasingly looking for plant-based alternatives of their favourite foods,’ said Birds Eye senior marketing manager Jess Ali. The Green Cuisine brand was launched by Birds Eye in March 2019, and saw sales jump by 321% to £11.3m last year.

Last year US feed giant Cargill investing in plant-based fish alternatives made by Dutch start-up Bflike, responding to flexitarian consumers’ growing appetite for plant-based products that deliver a “meat-like” experience’.

“Key to Bflike’s innovation is its patent-pending vegan fat and blood platforms,” Cargill explains: “This ground-breaking technology results in plant-based meat and fish alternative products that are virtually indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts, with similar visual appearance (both raw and cooked), texture, mouthfeel, melting behaviour and cooking performance.”

A new product called Veggie Marine Salmon, made by innovative French company Odontella, is made from microalgae and said to cook and taste just like salmon. According to the company, the Veggie Marine Salmon is rich in marine protein, carotenoids, and Omega-3, while at the same time free from any pesticides and heavy metals that are often found in fish.

Sophie’s Kitchen vegan smoked salmon slices meanwhile are a mix of water, olive oil, kanjac powder, pea starch, potato starch, pea protein, sea salt, organic agave nectar, seaweed powder, fenugreek, alginate (from seaweed), paprika, and calcium hydroxide.

In a bid to find a sustainable alternative to the 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp consumed in America every year, US-based New Wave Foods is using plants and seaweed to create shrimp’s texture and bite, and briny and sweet flavours.

Whether plant-based or cell-cultured, the rise of alternative seafood probably will not spell the end of aquaculture or fishing on the open ocean. But it could offer diners the chance to enjoy a taste of the rarest species – or enjoy a fish dish every day of the week – without a side order of ethical and environmental guilt.