Although it will probably be a few years before the first laboratory-grown fish is available in stores, research into lab-cultured fish is gaining momentum.
While investors were initially primarily interested in cultured meat, lab-grown fish now appears to be catching up fast. Last month, the first tasting of lab-grown fish products from the bioreactors of Shiok Meats took place in a restaurant in Singapore. The company hopes to bring its first products to the market in 2023. Companies such as BlueNalu (which makes lab-grown fish fingers), Wildtype (salmon) and Finless Foods (lab-grown tuna) also expect to launch their first products within a relatively short timeframe.
Although the production process is virtually identical, lab-grown fish has some crucial advantages over cultured meat. For example, fish grows more easily in culture vessels than its meat equivalent. A reason for this is that fish is generally cold-blooded and can be cultivated at lower temperatures. Moreover, the fish tissue is more resistant to the varying degrees of acidity and oxygen concentrations in the culture vessels.
However, the biggest hurdle on the way to commercialisation is in the structure of the lab-cultured fish. For the time being, it consists of 100 % muscle tissue and cannot compete with real fish fillets when it comes to taste and texture. "The texture of lab-grown fish is still completely wrong. It is more or less like hummus", Michael Selden of Finless Foods told Belgian newspaper De Standaard. To create a product that can compete with actual fish fillets, companies will also have to connect fat and connective tissue cells to muscle cells in the right proportion.
That explains why crab cakes and fish fingers have already emerged from the lab, but not salmon fillets or tuna steaks. The production of fish fingers from lab-grown fish is much simpler than imitating a real tuna steak, with its meaty structure.
Despite the obstacles the sector still faces, investors have great faith in the new technology. In 2020, 2.7 billion euros was invested in all kinds of alternatives to meat and fish, three times as much as the year before. This is a global figure, however, which includes plant-based initiatives as well as cell culture.
This year alone, BlueNalu raised over fifty million euros through convertible bonds. Last month, the company also partnered up with Nomad foods, the owner of Iglo and Birds Eye, among others. Together, they want to launch the first products based on lab-cultured fish on the European market.
Want to know more about lab-grown fish, cultured meat and other (for now) futuristic food concepts? Jorg Snoeck and Stefan Van Rompaey from RetailDetail explore these topics in their brand new book The Future of Food, which is available here.