Do you love burgers – but not the animal cruelty and environmental destruction that they cause? I have good news: One day you might be able to repair your meat without all these bad things. Scientists can now grow animal meat without raising or killing an animal. This food, called “Meat from the Lab,” “Cell-Based Meat,” “Breeding Meat,” “Cultured Meat,” “Pure Meat,” or as comedian Stephen Colbert jokingly called “Shmeat” in 2009, has gained a reputation the attention of the media in recent years. Dozens of meat companies bred in the lab have settled to solve the problems associated with the large scale production of beef, pork, poultry and seafood.
Finless Foods, a 12-member 2017 Food Tech startup based in Emeryville, California, claims to be the first company to focus on laboratory-bred fish, although a handful of other startups have joined. In October, 28-year-old Finless Foods co-founder Mike Selden gave me a tour of their facility, and I commented on the latest episode of the Mother Jones podcast on food policy:
Selden and co-founder Brian Wyrwas, both products of an agrochemical program at UMass Amherst, founded the company to “do something good”.
“We started with zebrafish and goldfish,” explains Selden. “From there, we made our first prototypes, which were carp.” The company planted tilapia, perch, rainbow trout, salmon, mahi mahi, lobster, and fugu meat (poisonous puffer fish) before deciding to use bluefin tuna Stocks have fallen sharply in recent decades.
The idea behind fish bred in the laboratory, says Selden, is complex. The technology, they hope, will prevent the killing of animals for food, reduce overfishing and eliminate mercury and microplastic contamination in seafood. “We see this as creating a clean food supply on land: no mercury, no plastic, no animals, and it can still satisfy people’s needs.”
Carp croquettes from Finless Foods, September 2017
Selden does not like the term “grown in the lab”. Industry insiders argue that its products sound artificial and unappetizing. Instead, he prefers to call it “cell-based.” He argues that the process of fish farming in a laboratory is actually very similar to how fish grow and develop in the wild.
It starts with a sample – about the size of a rice grain – of real meat of a real fish. (The tuna does not have to die during this process, but it does have to do it a lot.) In the two-and-a-half-year history of the company, they killed less than 20 tuna fish.) These cells are put into a liquid feed like a nutritious soup that gives them the energy to grow and to share, just like a real, growing fish.
Despite the obvious advantages of laboratory-bred fish, there are no products on the market. For Finless Foods, the cost of a portion of fish is still too high for consumers. “I’m not going to say exactly what that number is,” says Selden, “but you will not buy it.” This is industry-wide: beef from laboratory farming costs as much as $ 280,000 to produce a hamburger still prohibitively expensive, though the price is expected to drop to just $ 10 in two years.
Finding the right price is one of the industry’s biggest hurdles, if not the biggest, according to Liz Specht, Deputy Director of Science and Technology at Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to herbal and cell-based alternatives to meat and eggs. Industry, she says, has failed science. “What has to happen – and I do not want to downplay or trivialize how difficult this will be – is to put it on the scales and the price that will ultimately be necessary.”
In addition, Finless Foods is still working to improve the taste. The first iteration of her fish, carp served as a croquette and prepared by a local chef she unveiled in 2017, “tasted not so good,” Selden admits. At the time, journalist Amy Fleming described it as “delicious and disappointing” in a story for The Guardian. When I called Fleming in November to find out more details about the taste, she said it was “crispy on the outside” and “smooth and tender on the inside.” It had a subtle taste of the sea, as the chef described it to Fleming, like water in an oyster shell. “They were really beautiful,” she says, “but did it taste like fish? It was hard to say. You could not see any fish there and you can spot any kind of fleshy fish texture. ”
Now, after two more years of taste testing, Selden claims the taste of his Bluefin is “really good”. “I think it tastes fantastic,” he says. “And I think it really speaks for itself.”
In the laboratory of Finless Foods farmed carp in a pan.
The success of the company could depend on finding the right taste. When I ask Selden why people prefer their product to other alternatives, such as sustainably caught or farmed fish, he says, “They will not.” He said, “We’re turning specifically to people who really do not care about sustainability. “To appeal to seafood connoisseurs, his company plans to sell first to upscale restaurants rather than grocery stores. He believes that good food is an “easier way to bring public awareness to your side – especially if we’re targeting gourmets rather than a sustainable consumer.”
The funders seem to agree – they’ve already invested millions of dollars in Finless Foods. Early supporters include a Norwegian aquaculture investment firm called Hatch, an Italian food company, Hi-Food, a Japanese tuna company, Dainichi Corporation and Draper Associates, a venture capital firm founded by Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper. Animal welfare organizations such as PETA and Mercy for Animals have argued in favor of all meat from laboratory cultivation. And according to a 2018 survey conducted by Faunalytics, a nonprofit animal welfare research organization, 66 percent of consumers were willing to try clean meat.
There is a group of people who are probably less enthusiastic about seafood from the lab: fishermen. “I think we essentially need a Green New Deal, but for agriculture,” says Selden. He believes that an employment guarantee could alleviate some of the growing pain associated with moving to a partial meat feeding system in the lab. “I think the people who run this fishery are farming, we have to provide them with something to survive, even though we are getting out of their industry as a food production method.”
It remains to be seen if the Sashimi from Finless Foods will convince the die-hard seafood fanatics. On the other hand, they may not have a choice: if climate change worsens and the ocean gets too hot, too acidic, too polluted, and too overfished, it’s possible that some types of seafood will one day only be bred in the lab variety. As Woodpecker told me, “I think that cultivated meat is really our only option to preserve the diversity of aquatic species we eat.”