The coho salmon on a purple chip was grown in the lab by Wild Type, A San Francisco-based startup looking to grow sustainable fish. Credit: Wild Type

Kristy Hamilton 20 Aug 2020, 17:21

Editor's note: Interviews were gathered last year and reflect that time period in the production process of Wild Type.

Do we need animals to make meat? What if we could grow cells outside the body of an animal to create the food on our plates? Would we still farm them or would we embrace the alternative?

This is a new era of "clean meat" science, also called "cell-based", lab-grown, or "cultured" meat. It is a way to grow cells into meat rather than feed, breed, and kill the animals in the traditional sense. This is not to be confused with plant-based meats that source plant products in an attempt to reconstruct meat or genetically modified foods that have had their DNA modified.

"None of us really like the designation [of cell-based]," said Arye Elfenbein, a cardiologist and one of the founders of Wild Type. Every animal is a collection of cells, so the distinction is a bit nonsensical.

The terminology is not chiseled in stone but many believe there is a need to rethink our food system, whether it be in the way we farm, the substitutes we use, or something novel altogether. By 2050, the global population will soar past 9 billion. Annual meat production is projected to rise to 470 million tonnes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Fish accounted for around 17 percent of the world's intake of animal protein in 2013.

The need for alternative food cultivation to reduce the burden on Earth’s resources is real, but how realistic is clean meat? 

A handful of companies are working on making meat or seafood without animals, including Shiok Meats (shrimp) and Avant Meats (fish maw, or the swim bladders of large fish). There are plenty of benefits to be had as well as potential pitfalls to making it happen.

IFLScience talked with Wild Type founders Aryé Elfenbein and Justin Kolbeck in San Francisco as well as Liz Specht, a senior scientist with The Good Food Institute, on the future of the cell-based seafood industry.

Crudo – cold-smoked salmon, hazelnut butter, lemon, shiso, arugula, and smoke from the Wild Type tasting menu. Photo by Rachelle Hacmac/Rile Communications

Clean Meats And Seafood Poisoning

The mission behind cell-based seafood is to make the cleanest, most sustainable fish on the planet. Cleanest here means no mercury, no sea lice, no microplastics, no antibiotics – all of which can be found to varying degrees in farmed and wild beasties.

"Likewise, it is sustainable because we don’t have to take any fish out of the sea to make what we’re doing," said Kolbeck, who previously worked as a diplomat in food insecure regions. "People know that this is the healthiest fish you can find on the planet in that it’s free of those contaminants."

The overuse of antibiotics is contributing to resistance in humans, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending we reduce our antibiotic reliance in farmed animals. In its current stage, this is unlikely to be a problem for cultured meats. Currently, around a billion animals are slaughtered every year for consumption. Illicit fishing also accounts for around 15 percent of the world’s total annual capture fisheries output, according to the FAO

This is not to say lab-based seafood won't have its own sustainability challenges too, most notably in terms of energy use and scaling up to meet an ever-growing population. However, our current food habits are taking a toll on the planet in the form of habitat destruction, depletion of resources, vulnerable species, among others.

"A 2018 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that one-third of all fish stocks are being depleted faster than they can replenish. Another 60 percent of stocks are fished at the maximum sustainable level, leaving only 7 percent of fish stocks that are underfished," according to a report by The Good Food Institute.

Loocmill/Shutterstock

The Big Bang For Fish

To produce meat without an animal as a receptacle itself, you have to think backwards. Rather than feeding a full-grown creature, you’re feeding a collections of cells to grow into the food on the fork. These muscle cells, fat cells, and other cell types grouped as connective tissue will slowly become the meat you ingest and absorb into your body.

"When you think of the world from the view of the cell, you’re trying to encourage the cells to do the same thing it would within the animals – just outside of the animal," said Elfenbein.

This requires some tinkering to get the environment right – just as you would for, say, an animal in a wildlife park, except the enclosure here is steel tanks and petri dishes, not fences and gates. The food these cells love to gobble up are salts, sugars, and amino acids, as well as growth factors to help with proliferation and maturation; the scaffolding and temperature need to hit a happy medium too.

Now you may be wondering why this future of food isn’t closer to reality when we have mini brains and 3d-printed body parts. The truth of the matter is that the science of mammalian research is simply further along than cold-blooded vertebrate animals.

"Most of the work on stem cells, molecular biology, and even tissue engineering has been grounded in mammalian research," said Elfenbein.

"Fish being so removed evolutionarily from mammals actually use different genes that then code for different proteins to do the same things in very different ways." Fish cells, for example, can grow in a wide variety of temperatures and tolerate low-oxygen concentrations because they dive deep into the ocean. Not so for mammalian cells.

"We are just learning how to take care of and nurture these cells," added Elfenbein. "Learning what these cells like and what they don’t like. People have often likened it to taking care of a pet without being able to directly communicate with it."

Poke – raw salmon, amaranth furikake, puffed buckwheat, and lotus root from the Wild Type tasting menu. Photo by Rachelle Hacmac/Rile Communications

What Are The Hurdles?

Cell-based seafood is a new frontier being explored and with that comes unexpected stumbling blocks. "There's still certainly a lot to be learned," said Elfenbein.

One of these is cooking the salmon, which has been presented to consumers raw so far. Wild Type salmon can be cooked, they say, but they're "working on the texture" at the moment.

"There are lots of technical hurdles here to overcome," said Paul Mozdziak, a muscle biologist at North Carolina State University, to Nature. The challenges include better cell lines and scaffolding materials to shape the cells into tissue. Not only that but often research is kept in-house as trade secrets. There is also the question of labeling and what is required to tell consumers on packaging. 

Some say they should just call it "meat", others "cell-based", others "clean meat" or "slaughter-free meat". Scalability for large-scale production is another hurdle Wild Type and other companies are considering. Wild Type has already created raw salmon in a variety of shapes and sizes, with one of their most popular dishes at an Oregon tasting event being the poke bowl and sushi.

"Today, our sushi costs about $200 for an 8 piece sushi roll – when we’re ready to roll it out it needs to be a $6 sushi roll," said Kolbeck.

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Salmon rolls with classic spicy preparation from the Wild Type. Credit: Hattie Watson

Others have noted that if it seems gross for meat to be grown in a lab, factory farming too has its considerable share of gross factor. Still, for now it's for the consumer to decide what they are comfortable with.

A literature review of consumer acceptance studies up to 2017 from the USA, India, and China revealed men are more likely than women to accept cultured meat (except in China where it was reversed), as are those with more education and, surprisingly, those who are meat eaters rather than vegetarians. Overall, China and India were more accepting of clean meat than the USA. The demographic trends were compiled by Chris Bryant, a doctoral researcher at the University of Bath.

"This is interesting because omnivores are of course eating vastly more meat than vegetarians (even assuming some vegetarians are less strict than others), and men typically eat about twice as much meat as women, so the groups that are consuming the most meat are the most receptive to cell-based meat," said Specht from The Good Food Institute, to IFLScience.

Some of the challenges in developing tissues that resemble muscle rather than ground meat may help provide insights further down the line for tissue engineering for regenerative medicine. "Cell-based meat actually offers a much easier task than producing, say, a regenerated organ for transplantation: cell-based muscle tissue doesn't need to be functional – it simply needs to have approximately the right structure and therefore texture," said Specht.

"The good news is that researchers can leverage the vast scientific literature and new technologies (faster sequencing, better characterization methods, etc.) to fill in the knowledge gaps for cell culture of seafood-relevant species much more quickly than the time it took to develop these tools and knowledge for mammalian cells," added Specht.

Is it Vegan?

Clean meat is still meat, so it is not vegan in that sense of the word. However, for vegans who avoid meat for health, environmental, or ethical reasons, clean meat could be considered a "vegan option" because there is no sentient animal involved in the production.

"Before we’ve only had animal or non-animal and now we have animal but not made from an animal, so what is that?" asked Kolbeck. "I think the classic definitions and categories may need to evolve a little bit to be more nuanced."

In theory, the team say they could replicate the nutritional profile of the meat to match that of the original animal, which are a rich source of proteins and essential amino acids, fats, vitamins (D, A and B), and minerals, particularly if eaten whole.

"There are several research gaps that exist for marine cell culture, alongside several opportunities that make these research gaps worth addressing," write an unrelated team in a recent paper in Frontiers in Sustianable Food Systems. "With growing interest in cellular agriculture as a means to produce meat, milk, eggs, and other animal proteins from cell cultures, and with the rapid intensification of aquaculture systems, the time is right to investigate the production of seafood without marine animals."

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