Lab-grown fish, crustacean, and mollusk products aren’t in stores or restaurants yet, but several companies say they are getting closer to commercial sales.
At the end of January, the California start-up BlueNalu announced that it is partnering with the Japanese restaurant group Food & Life Companies to develop, market, and secure regulatory approval for cell-grown tuna. The same day, the cellular meat company Upside Foods disclosed that it acquired Cultured Decadence, a Wisconsin company growing lobster and other crustaceans from cells.
In addition, the start-up Pearlita Foods, launched last month with funding from Sustainable Food Ventures and Big Idea Ventures' New Protein Fund. It claims to be the first company to focus on growing oyster meat from cells.
Last year, the Singaporean start-up Shiok raised $17 million and opened a pilot plant that will make shrimp, lobster, and crab. And Berlin-based Bluu Biosciences raised nearly $8 million in seed funding to make cell-based fish.
BlueNalu already has an agreement to introduce cell-grown seafood in Europe. The company is also working with Mitsubishi, Pulmuone, and Thai Union, which owns the Chicken of the Sea brand, to bring cell-cultured fish to Asia. The new announcement is its first with a restaurant.
“With the uncertainty of natural marine resources in the future, it is important that we secure a stable supply of seafood,” Food & Life president Koichi Mizutome says in a press release.
Upside Foods says threats to marine resources, such as climate change’s impact on lobsters, were one motivation for buying Cultured Decadence. “For a lot of crustaceans, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to farm them,” says David Kay, Upside Foods’ director of communications. “There needs to be new ways to produce them.”
David Kaplan, who leads the Cellular Agriculture Research Group at Tufts University, points to another argument for using cells to grow lobster, oysters, and tuna. They’re all expensive, which could make it easier to introduce cellular versions at competitive prices.
However, Kate Krueger, managing partners at the cellular meat consulting firm Helikon Consulting, says producing seafood from cells may be more difficult than growing beef or pork because there’s more research on mammalian cells. Research on growing mollusks and oysters is especially scarce. “There’s not as much information out there for companies to rely on,” she says.
Cell-grown seafood products will also have to overcome regulatory hurdles. BlueNalu says it’s still exploring what the regulatory process will look like in Japan, but it is already pursuing regulatory review for cell-grown tuna by the US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most fish products.
Kaplan says the success or failure of cell-grown seafood products, just like their terrestrial counterparts, will ultimately depend on cost and the ability to scale output. Cell-grown seafood may start out more expensive than ocean-dwelling fish, but he’s optimistic that technology will improve and prices will drop.
“It’s a question of how fast,” he says. “There’s so much interest in healthier eating, in saving the marine environment.”
This story was updated on Feb. 3, 2022, to correct the name of of an investment firm. It is Big Idea Ventures, not Big Idea Venture.