The race is on to be the Beyond Meat of fish

Mullet over: Efforts to produce inexpensive lab-grown fish and sushi are providing food for thought.

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    Smoked salmon is likely to be the first lab-grown fish product to reel in the customers, says Justin Kolbeck [Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg]
    Smoked salmon is likely to be the first lab-grown fish product to reel in the customers, says Justin Kolbeck [Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg]

    Salmon has become the guinea pig of the seas when it comes to using technology to supplement falling fish populations. Now it's moved onto land - and into the laboratory.

    The fatty orange fish was the second-most-consumed seafood in the U.S. in 2017, after shrimp, and per capita consumption increased 11 percent, to 2.41 pounds per person, from the prior year, according to the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group. Globally, demand for salmon has skyrocketed, along with that for all fish, fueling overfishing and threatening supply.

    Industrial-scale salmon farming, once seen as a solution, has its own problems. Massive stocks of smaller fish are depleted to feed farmed salmon, and parasites flourish in salmon pens where farmers use pesticides, contributing to pollution and ecosystem destruction. Sea lice have infested farms in Norway and Scotland in recent years, and a deadly algae bloom killed salmon in Chile, a top farmed-salmon producer. Farmed fish sometimes escape, too, contaminating nearby wild salmon.

    With rising incomes in developing nations driving demand, fish and seafood now account for almost a fifth of the animal protein people consume. Unsurprisingly, the need for a solution to this less-than-virtuous circle has become evident to a growing number of entrepreneurs and startups.

    The move toward environmentally conscious salmon farming is already underway.

    Maynard, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies is hoping its genetically modified "AquAdvantage" version of Atlantic salmon, which it says grows twice as fast, will soon appear in the shopping carts of the environmentally aware. The company says on its website that its product is raised in "land-based production systems" that eliminate the various risks to wild fish, humans and the environment posed by farmed salmon.

    "The need and the desire for more farm-raised salmon is growing, and imports are growing, too," said Janice Schreiber, a commodity researcher at Urner Barry. "The market is looking for consistency, and that's where some of these newer lines come in."

    But the next chapter of fish production, beyond even land-based farming, is already being written - by scientists. San Francisco-based Wild Type is hoping that, as with the rise of meat substitutes (and their arrival on Wall Street), lab-grown fish won't be far behind.

    Or, for that matter, lab-grown sushi.

    On a recent Sunday evening in Portland, Oregon, a group of Wild Type employees, investors, chefs, local restaurant owners and friends gathered at Olympia Oyster Bar for the first full-scale service of the company's product, straight from the lab. Chefs Maylin Chavez, Kyle Christy and Rose Ha each served a pair of dishes designed to highlight the novel product.

    The chef's imaginations were constrained by the reality of working with a still-in-development food. Wild Type can produce only small pieces of salmon, which become too flaky if heated above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, all the preparations were either raw or cooked in natural acids, such as citrus juice. (The company says it plans to have a version of the product that can withstand heat in the coming months.)

    Highlights of the meal included a perfectly balanced ceviche with avocado, cucumber, katsuobushi, ginger and cilantro; a crudo of cold-smoked salmon with hazelnut butter, lemon, shiso and arugula; and a classic spicy salmon roll.

    The Wild Type product absorbed the cold smoking particularly well, an attribute the company plans to leverage as it launches the product commercially. One of the first items will be "smoked salmon," since it's something "people are comfortable with," explained Wild Type co-founder Justin Kolbeck. "We want to start with something that is familiar. We don't want people to find it strange."

    The tasting culminated in a sample of the raw product itself. Served in a canning tin, the Wild Type salmon appeared a bit dull, lacking some of the vibrant color of wild coho. While the texture closely approximated wild fish, the taste, however, was lacking. It wasn’t unpleasant, nor unfamiliar. Just faint.

    The company hopes to eventually produce full slabs of lab-grown salmon at a competitive retail cost of $7 to $8 per pound. But it has a long way to go. Kolbeck estimated that the spicy salmon roll served at this test dinner cost $200 to produce.

    "The dream vision is the cleanest, purest, freshest salmon, without contaminants or antibiotics, for a price lower than farmed Atlantic salmon," he said. 

    SOURCE: Bloomberg