The first lab-grown seafood will be fancy
San Diego, California, was once known as the “Tuna Capital of the World.” Throughout much of the 20th century, thousands of workers caught cheap albacore tuna off the coast and packed it in canneries that lined the city’s waterfront. But by the 1980s, operating costs and foreign competition were too high, ships stopped their journeys out to sea, and the canneries closed down.
Now, some 40 years later, San Diego startup BlueNalu is looking to put the city back on the culinary map — but with a very different approach to producing seafood that doesn’t involve fishing.
Five miles inland, in a sprawling office park, BlueNalu is growing fish cells in large stainless steel tanks, known as bioreactors. Instead of producing the cheap, $5-per-pound albacore tuna San Diego was once known for, BlueNalu is brewing up Pacific bluefin tuna toro — the prized fatty belly portion of the near-threatened fish, which fetches over $100 a pound on the retail market.
The meat is made by taking a small amount of fish cells (sourced from a San Diego fishery), placing them in the bioreactor, and feeding them a mix of nutrients, such as amino acids, salts, and sugars, for several weeks until they can be harvested for consumption. It’s colloquially called “lab-grown meat,” though BlueNalu prefers the term cell-cultured, while most in the nascent industry call it “cultivated” meat. Whatever the name, it does taste good.
I should add that I’ve never eaten the belly fat of a bluefin tuna — the fish is on Seafood Watch’s red list because of its near-threatened status (its population has dwindled to just 3 percent of its historical, pre-fishing levels). But BlueNalu’s version, which was served up as sushi and nigiri, didn’t taste far off from how food critics have described the wild-caught version: a butter-soft flavor bomb. It left a thin lining of oil on my mouth in a way mere plant-based meat never has — something that maybe only real fish could achieve, even when made by replicating cell after cell.
It was my second such tasting of fish made from the cell up this year; in May, I tried cell-cultured salmon served in a poke bowl from the San Francisco-based startup Wildtype. It was similarly soft, buttery, and fishy — again, traits you wouldn’t find in a purely plant-based product. Wildtype makes coho salmon saku, the most expensive part of the fish (usually reserved for sushi), which can run you $40 per pound and up. Some populations of coho salmon — the species Wildtype is cultivating — are threatened or endangered.
Neither is available for sale yet, as both startups are still in talks with regulators for approval. And neither BlueNalu nor Wildtype would disclose to me just how much it cost them to make what amounted to an appetizer’s worth of seafood — but it sure wasn’t cheap. While companies are bringing down the cost of cultivating meat from cells, it’s still a pricey endeavor, in the range of hundreds to thousands of dollars per pound in recent years. (In 2013, the first-ever cell-cultured hamburger weighed in at five ounces and cost $325,000 to produce, or around $1 million per pound.)
Other companies making cell-cultured chicken, pork, and beef have a long way to go to get within striking distance of the low price of commodity meat, which has benefited not only from economies of scale, but lax environmental, labor, and animal welfare regulation, along with decades of subsidies and government R&D. Chicken can run as low as $1.50 per pound in the US, with pork and beef in the range of $4 to $10 a pound. Some experts say the cell-cultured meat companies will never catch up.