Food & Drink

Cell-Cultured Seafood Isn’t just An Idea; It’s A Reality

Cell-cultured meat—that is, animal-based meat grown from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals, also referred to as “cultivated meat,” “cultured meat,” “cell-based meat,” and “lab-grown meat,” among other names—is having a moment. Good Meat, the cell-cultured meat division of Eat Just, recently announced plans for a U.S.-based commercial-scale meat facility, capable of making up to 30 million pounds of meat a year; and in April, UPSIDE Foods (formerly Memphis Meats), another leading cell-cultured meat company, took in $400 million in Series C funding, touting it as “the largest round in the industry to date.” Once merely a futuristic idea, cell-cultured meat, with its promise of cruelty-free and environmentally friendly animal protein, unlike meat from animals raised in factory farms, is poised to be on American plates in the coming years.

I expect this to be true, in part because last week, it was on my plate. Wildtype, a cell-cultured meat company pioneering the field of cellular agriculture to grow cuts of seafood, without fishing or fish farming, invited me to a private tasting at a sushi bar in the East Village of Manhattan to try its sushi-grade salmon. As the first and only cell-cultured seafood brand to raise $100 million in Series B funding, and with high-profile investors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downing Jr., and Jeff Bezos, I had high expectations; I was not disappointed. In fact, it tasted exactly like conventional sushi-grade salmon (which arguably isn’t the case with many plant-based alternatives), and as a bonus, didn’t have any of the common contaminants such as mercury, microplastics, antibiotics, or pesticides. And neither a single salmon, nor any by-catch, was harmed in the process. How exactly does Wildtype achieve this culinary feat?

“We start by isolating cells from salmon found along the northern Pacific coast,” Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype tells me. “This process needs to be completed only once for every species because cells, like a sourdough starter in bread baking, are able to grow nearly indefinitely. Next, we grow salmon cells in large cultivators similar to those found in breweries. Lastly, cells are harvested from our tanks and grown on three-dimensional, plant-derived scaffolds to recreate the texture of natural fish fillets. These scaffolds guide the cells to become the fatty and lean components of salmon.”

Born in Israel and raised in Australia, Elfenbein is leveraging cellular agriculture to combine his deep passion for medicine and his unique childhood connection to the ocean. During a return visit back to Australia, he saw parts of the country that used to be rainforests that are now being used for cattle. Seeing the environmental problems associated with industrial animal agriculture first-hand caused Elfenbein to question the feasibility of raising animals for food, both on land and in the sea, in meeting the planet’s growing demand for food. Drawing upon his medical degree and research focused on cardiac regeneration following heart attacks, Elfenbein was inspired to apply the principles of stem cell biology beyond medicine and to address the growing problems in our food system.

Of course, the primary challenge with his approach is that this cell-cultured salmon is pricey. The 4.5 ounce saku (or block) of salmon cost Wildtype about $150 in food costs alone. (That’s a whopping $533 per pound.) The prepared slivers I ate within the six-piece sushi roll? $75. “It’s more expensive than we’d like,” Elfenbein says, “but costs are falling every day as we improve our technology and continue to scale.”

There are skeptics who think price parity for cell-cultured meat with conventional meat will be impossible due to various technical challenges, but the good news for Wildtype, as Elfenbein wisely points out, is that seafood is more expensive than beef or poultry. “Working with seafood gives us significant advantage over chicken and beef when it comes to achieving cost parity. Seafood prices are roughly an order of magnitude higher than chicken, for example, and are only continuing to rise due to environmental and production challenges.” Still, a pound of farmed and wild-caught salmon is sold profitably at supermarkets for about $10 and $20 respectively, so Wildtype has a long way to go.

And then there’s the the question of when this product will be available for consumers. It’s currently illegal to sell cell-cultured seafood in the United States, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t granted the nascent industry regulatory approval. “The FDA has been a trusted partner throughout our multi-year consultation process, and we look forward to continuing our work with them,” Justin Kolbeck, co-founder of Wildtype, who met Elfenbein while he was completing an MBA at Yale University, explains to me. “We are not able to provide an estimate of when this pre-market consultation process will conclude, as we believe it’s important to allow our food regulators to fully understand our technology. Wildtype has shared all inputs and processes with the FDA in the spirit of transparency, and to design a robust food safety program. We understand people have questions about this technology and we believe transparency is absolutely critical in the important work ahead of building trust with our future customers. As a result, we plan to partner with the FDA to make a significant portion of our pre-market safety assessment available to the public.”

Once the once the FDA consultation process is completed and (if) regulatory approval is granted, people should expect to find cell-cultured seafood at select restaurants across the country. Companies like Wildtype will sell their product at a loss in order for early adopters to be able to afford it, but Elfenbein is optimistic the company will be able to bring down the price and that it’ll eventually be profitable: “Considering the past trajectory, we’re confident we’ll be able to continue driving down production costs to the point where our product is commercially viable, and that it will happen without significant new technological breakthroughs.”

Time will tell if the duo’s vision is realized, but one thing is for certain: Tasting is believing, and I believe Wildtype’s cell-cultured salmon would delight the tastebuds of any seafood lover. Given all that’s at stake, that’s a fin-tastic thing.


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