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No Bones, No Scales, No Eyeballs: Appetite grows for lab-grown seafood

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A lot of people have intentionally turned a blind eye to how our meat and seafood is made because we all know it’s not a great story. Slaughterhouse conditions are notorious for animals, and aquaculture operations are not much better.

EMILY WALTZ: In recent weeks, companies developing cell-based fish and shellfish have been drawing attention as they tout their offerings and expand their businesses globally. San Diego-based BlueNalu will introduce lab-made finfish to Europe through a collaboration announced in September with British frozen food distributor Nomad Foods. The same month, Hong Kong-based Avant Meats inked a deal with Singapore’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute to improve the economics of its cultivated fish production. In June, Wildtype opened a tasting room adjacent to its San Francisco pilot plant, where it has been offering bites of lab-grown, sushi-grade salmon.

These moves reflect a growing interest in alternative, biotech-derived fish. The need for sustainability has brought them to the fore: Of all the seafood consumed in the world, about half is raised in aquaculture and the other half is wild caught. Some species of wild-caught fish may contain mercury, microplastics and pollutants from environmental contamination; stocks are being depleted by the impact of climate change on ecosystems and overfishing.

The harvest of wild-caught seafood cannot be increased sustainably, and yet the global population and its demand for protein continue to grow. “So we’ve got to come up with a lot of different ways to address these challenges,” says Kevan Main, associate vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. “I believe that cell-based seafood is going to be one of those opportunities”…

Cell-based seafood—derived from commonly consumed fish (for example, salmon and tuna) or shellfish (for example, crustaceans such as shrimp and crab)—is also known as cultured, cellular or in vitro seafood. It is derived from the tissue of an aquatic species, but has never been part of a live, swimming animal. The flesh is made in the laboratory by harvesting cells from a small number of donor fish or shellfish and culturing them in a bioreactor…

The strategy has already been applied to and commercialized in the in vitro culture of other kinds of meat, including beef, chicken and pork… So far, cultured seafood has lagged its terrestrial counterparts. According to the Good Food Institute, which tracks and advocates for the cultured meat industry, there are only about 14 companies in the world developing this kind of seafood. The gap is, some biologists contend, due to a research bias towards terrestrial species…

Some people object to the idea of their meat being grown in a lab, but Wildtype’s founders, a company developing sushi-grade salmon, say that more awareness about slaughter is changing that. “A lot of people have intentionally turned a blind eye to how our meat and seafood is made because we all know it’s not a great story,” says Justin Kolbeck, who co-founded the company with Elfenbein. “Slaughterhouse conditions are notoriously unpleasant for both workers and animals, and aquaculture operations are not much better,” he says. “However, I think there’s been a big shift in terms of people wanting to know more and having more visibility and transparency into what they’re eating”…

No matter what the scale of the operation, the cost of producing cultured meat is astronomically high compared with that of conventional meat—over $20,000 per kilogram at the high end, by one estimate prepared by consulting firm CE Delft for the Good Food Institute. That won’t change without a tremendous amount of R&D and an approach to cell culture that differs radically from the way scientists have been growing cells for the past 70 years. SOURCE…

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