Can cell-based fish save our food system and our oceans? San Francisco’s Wildtype is betting on it. The producer of lab-grown salmon is aiming to bring its clean seafood to market.
When chef Alice Waters first opened the doors to her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971 her goal was simple: to feed people clean, healthy food, while supporting local farmers.
In the half-century since, our global food system has changed dramatically—some of it good, some of it not quite so much. Chief among the issues—both then and now: meat. Is any of it really any good? For our bodies, for the planet, for the animals?
The answer, not surprisingly, is: it’s complicated. And, even, pretty damn weird.
Just across the Bay from Shattuck Avenue’s star restaurant, food tech scientists—many of whom weren’t even born when Chez Panisse first opened—are now hard at work trying to make meat better. It’s no small task. They’re doing this without the animal—for the most part. Cultivating cells taken from small tissue samples, lab-grown, cell-based, cultured steak, chicken, and salmon promise a future for meat lovers that may just make those steaks and sushi rolls healthy for us, the planet, and the animals they used to come from.
A fish without a face
“You can hold it,” Ben Friedman, Wildtype’s Head of Product, said to me as we sat outside the Harajuku Taproom in Culver City, California, last week. I was waiting for my turn to speak with the co-founders Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein about the company. But I was also there to do something I never would have imagined when I gave up meat nearly three decades ago. I was waiting to taste cell-based salmon—fish meat grown in a lab.
The first thing I noticed about Wildtype’s lab-grown salmon was how much it looks like real salmon. I mean, it is real salmon, isn’t it? This is not a Beyond Burger or a vegan nugget made from plants to look and taste similar to animal products. These are cells of the anadromous fish fed a secret algae sauce and grown in a saline environment that mimics the ocean water the fish would typically migrate to in the wild. The only thing this fish doesn’t have—besides eyes, a mouth, and a central nervous system—is scales and a tail. But the food scientists growing this new world meat could certainly do that, too. They can do pretty much anything, it turns out. And that type of power to design our food is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
The salmon’s pinkish hue is striped with marbley waves of fat that look like the waters the fish swim in. The meat felt heavy in my hands, a weighty density my typical tofu steak does not have. It’s been a long time since I held a slab of flesh in my hands like this, but I knew the sensation immediately—even through latex gloves. There was no mistaking it: this was meat. And it never had a face.
The salmon market
“Salmon is the second most consumed seafood in the U.S.,” Kolbeck tells me. It has surpassed tuna and sits just behind shrimp. Tuna was king for decades, served up in sandwiches and sushi rolls. But price spikes, sourcing issues—Bluefin tuna are now listed as endangered species—have turned consumers toward other seafood options.
While tuna was cheap school lunch fodder, salmon was a pricey delicacy—that is until fish farming emerged in recent years. What was once exclusively wild caught in pristine places like cold Alaskan waters, has been relegated to filthy, crammed underwater factory fish farms where the animals are pumped with antibiotics and hormones. Prices dropped as a result of the mass farming, and Americans gobbled it up—the salmon market is expected to surpass $36 billion by 2026 just in the U.S.
Salmon’s trajectory mirrors that of chicken’s—once more expensive than beef or pork, mass production made chicken the most-consumed and least expensive meat option today.
Making food more affordable sounds like a victory, but it is a complicated achievement. In the case of fruits and vegetables, affordability can increase access, which means improved health, reducing the risks of certain diseases, and slowing or even reversing the effects of others. But when it comes to cheap and ubiquitous meat, that typically means increasing the risk of diseases—countless studies link meat consumption to a host of health issues from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, stroke, and some forms of cancer.
There are environmental risks, too. Meat production is one of the top greenhouse gas emitters, with estimates putting it at around 24 percent of all emissions. Some experts say animal agriculture’s impact is even higher when all totaled—from razing land and forests to feed production and transport to the gases the animals themselves produce. There are more than 55 billion land animals raised for food annually.
But when it comes to fish, we’re talking trillions of animals pulled from the sea every year. And the pressures on the oceans by way of mass fishing operations and emissions from industry and agriculture are threatening the future of the world’s largest carbon sink.
All of that played into Kolbeck and Elfenbein’s decision to start Wildtype and go after the salmon market.
“When we were starting out, we were trying to figure out where to point this technology, because, at the time, there were so few companies,” Kolbeck says. “And we had a really fun conversation about that, to be honest, and it didn’t take long to land on seafood as the thing that we needed to focus on. And there are a few reasons for that. One, if you just think about where you can have a big impact, it’s actually the biggest source of protein that humans eat, by quite a bit, actually.” According to Kolbeck and Elfenbein, it’s consumed more than beef and pork combined.
The co-founders say the second reason they landed on salmon was because of the risks in seafood. “It’s one of the few foods that we eat where we just accept flaws, right? Mercury and microplastics, antibiotics, parasites,” Kolbeck says. “So what if we can get rid of all that entirely?”
There’s a signficant market opportunity there for pregnant women, children, people with compromised immune systems, and those health-minded consumers that don’t want to risk heavy metal contamination every time they sit down at a sushi bar.
But the health benefits don’t just stop there. Elfenbein, who also happens to be a cardiologist, says while fish is a health risk because of the contaminants, fish like salmon are revered for their fatty acid profile—those sought-after omega-3s, 6s, and 9s.
“Those omega-3 fatty acids are not made by fish,” Elfenbein says. “They actually come from algae.”
Here, the Wildtype founders don’t differ much from Waters—the Chez Panisse founder wants the cleanest, purest ingredients for her patrons; Kolbeck and Elfenbein want to create that same environment for their fish cells.
“Our mission statement is to make the cleanest, most sustainable seafood on the planet,” Kolbeck says. “And by cleanest, we just mean the absence of all of these things. This is definitely the purest seafood you can get. Period. There’s just nothing that is as clean as this,” he says.
“We use the same algae-derived omega-three fats found in the oceans, and just grow them ourselves,” Kolbeck adds. “We wanted to create the same conditions in the ocean.”
The cell-based dilemma
But clean or not, cell-based food is not without its challenges and critics. It’s been lumped in with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), although it’s not the same technology. Where GMOs are seeds (and some fish) altered at the cellular level to express certain traits, like pest resistance, or given the ability to withstand high doses of herbicides that would normally kill the plant, making cultured meat looks a lot more like growing sourdough culture, brewing beer, or making yogurt than turning corn seeds into killers. It’s almost quaint by comparison—GMO seeds are designed to function under heavy applications of chemicals including glyphosate, dicamba, and 2,4-D—a core ingredient in the Vietnam War defoliant known as Agent Orange. Cell-based meat is just protein grown without a face.
Still, cell-based meat is such a foreign concept that the industry, let alone the consumer, doesn’t even know what to call it—cultured meat, cell-based meat, clean meat, lab-meat, Frankemeat?—the names are all interchanged. And with regulatory approval only in Singapore as of now, there are few U.S. federal guidelines to direct the industry.
A sea change
While the goal of the cell-based meat industry may be more aligned with the clean food ethos proffered by Waters’ (who’s a staunch critic of the tech), consumer education is proving to be a bigger challenge than being able to scale the tech to grow the meat more quickly and at reasonable costs. (The first lab-grown burger produced cost more than $300,000 nearly a decade ago.)
But for the Wildtype founders, that’s all about to change. Prices are dropping almost daily. If sold at a high-end sushi restaurant for $30-$40 a plate, Wildtype says they profit and so will the restaurant. In Singapore, another San Francisco food tech company, Eat Just, was the first to receive regulatory approval globally. It’s made its lab-grown chicken somewhat affordable (Singaporeans can try their cell-cultured nuggets at the 1880 private dining club and a couple of other restaurants) and even deliverable; it struck a deal with Foodpanda to distribute the meat on a limited basis.
Kolbeck, who’s a father of two, says he sees a day in the not-so-distant future where his kids will be able to grow meat at school or home in off-the-shelf science kits. Elfenbein says kids naturally understand the concept behind the technology. To them, he says, there are no assumptions about where meat should come from.
“Describing this process of taking a cell and then growing it outside of the animal— kids just understand this,” he says.
“When they can grow their own,” Kolbeck says, “that is what makes this so much less weird. They go home and it’s, ‘Look, Mom, I grew this little tiny piece of salmon!’ And it’s not actually that weird at all.”
It’s certainly no weirder than the current state of the world for these kids—the pandemic started at the end of first grade for my daughter. She’s just started third grade—and still has never seen some of her teachers or classmates unmasked. Growing up during a pandemic is tuning these kids into the sacredness of resources, of life itself, in ways completely unlike those generations that preceded them. And that could be a good thing if they’re able to carry that regard forward. They’re certainly going to need it.
The world’s leading scientists continue to sound the alarm about the climate crisis, which will only bring more severe natural disasters in the years to come. And with sustainability already a touchstone for Millennials and Gen-Z, it seems only logical it’s going to be even more of a concern for Generation Alpha.
I’m clearly not the target consumer for Wildtype or lab-grown meat in general. But I’m an eager cheerleader. It’s been decades since I’ve eaten meat—and I ate raw fish far less often than fast-food chicken, hot dogs, and burgers. But to this tofu steak and steamed veggie-lover, I couldn’t tell that the cell-based salmon I ate never took a swim. The raw fish tasted cool in my mouth. There was a fleshy texture and sheen that, even despite the decades between bites, was distinctly animal in nature.
I didn’t much like it—which is to say that’s a good thing for the industry. I never much liked the taste or texture of meat or fish in the first place. It’s why I gave the stuff up at such a young age and never looked back.
But for the consumer who struggles to give up meat while wanting to make healthier choices for themselves and the planet, Wildtype and the booming lab-grown meat market is an absolute game-changer. A game-saver, if we’re getting philosophical. Which, by all accounts, we absolutely should.
Friedman chimes in: “I think the entire country is full of people really starting to focus on the confluence of food issues and environmental issues, especially in their own health, but also in their local farmland and farmers market ecosystem,” he says. “There’s a greater level of consciousness now around the impact of our food system, not only for the climate crisis, but also things like the fact that the whole Mississippi River Delta is polluted with chemical fertilizers, and there’s a massive dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi; in the Gulf of Mexico, the entire Louisiana and East Texas seafood industry has collapsed. So even people who are really focused on the vanguard of food issues are focused on this because there are really deep community impacts to industries that were previously resilient and renewable.”
After Chez Panisse became the trend leader not just in food quality, but food justice as well, an industry soon followed. In its footsteps came Whole Foods Market, Fair Trade, and in 2002, the USDA’s National Organic Program certification. We hardly blink an eye at any of this these days.
Similarly, the plant-based boom of the last decade—just the last five years, really—whether Beyond and Impossible Burgers or milk made from oats or peas, is seeing tech rise to the challenges, and investors propelling the industry forward.
But we’re seeing something else, too: acceptance. Reverence, even.
Chefs, farmers, and consumers that once turned up their noses to plant-based options are now championing their legitimacy, trading in their flocks and herds, and revamping their menus all in favor of food that’s healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical.
For cell-based meat, it’s most certainly going to be a longer road to win people over. But there’s no question about the future of food—it’s evolving, just like everything else.
Lead image courtesy Wildtype.