CellMEAT’s cultivated alternative aims to disrupt cruel caviar industry
The South Korean startup, CellMEAT, has succeeded in developing a cell-based caviar prototype that the company says has been designed to mimic one of the most popular types of the luxury food, Osetra.
Most caviar, especially the expensive varieties, comes from sturgeons, long-lived fish that die when their eggs are forcibly extracted. Eating caviar is unsustainable at best, as sturgeons are among the world’s most critically endangered group of animals, with 85% of species at risk of extinction.
In fact, overfishing of sturgeon has led to near extinction of several species, and since 1998, international trade in sturgeon and related products is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which classes sturgeons among the world’s most valuable wildlife resources. Virtually all caviar on the market today comes from farmed sturgeon.
Despite these concerns, the demand for this fine dining favorite shows no signs of abating, however. A recent report on the caviar market from the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA) showed that, in 2018, global aquaculture production of sturgeon was around 115,000 metric tons (MT), and production of caviar was 380 MT. China accounted for 84% of global sturgeon production with 97,000 MT, followed by Armenia at 3%, or 3,900 MT; and Russia at 3%, or 3,800 MT. The USA produced 1,166 MT of sturgeon and 18 MT of caviar in 2018, exporting 39% to Japan, 27% to Canada, and 22% to the European Union.
The global farmed sturgeon industry was worth US$848 million in 2019, according to figures from Norwegian firm, Kontali, which monitors the worldwide fish farm sector. Some of the cheapest tins can cost around US$17, but that only gets you 10g – less than a teaspoon’s worth. At the other end of the scale, the most expensive caviar in the world is ‘Almas’, meaning ‘diamond’ in Russian. It comes from the eggs of a rare albino or extremely old sturgeon that swims in the southern Caspian Sea. It has a golden, butter yellow color and sells for more than US$30,000/kg. Much of the high cost is down to the fact that female sturgeon take a long time to reach egg-laying maturity. However, critics of sturgeon farms, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argue that farming any fish is cruel, as it keeps them in an artificially confined space. The female sturgeons are also generally killed before their eggs are harvested. The caviar industry argues that the sturgeon meat is also sold for eating, that farmed stocks can bolster critically endangered wild numbers, and that the welfare of the fish has to be their main priority.
CellMEAT, though, believes its prototype offers not only a response to the ethical concerns of farmed sturgeon, but also the environmental and health consequences associated with overfishing. As far as human health goes, fish and other seafood represent one of the main sources of exposure to metals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead in humans, which can be harmful at certain levels.
This is not CellMEAT’s first foray into seafood. In December 2021, leveraging its serum-free culture medium (CSF-A1) and proprietary tissue engineering technologies, the company developed a cell-cultured alternative to ‘Dokdo’ shrimp, a regional premium delicacy that is priced at around US$160/kg. CellMEAT has previously cited producing shrimp at US$20/kg, although the company revealed more recently that it expects to market its shrimp at under US$5/kg.
Off the back of an US$8.1 million Series A funding round, the firm established a production facility in Seoul that is reportedly capable of producing 100kg of cultured shrimp per day. CellMEAT confirmed plans to bring its cultured shrimp product to the USA, Korea, and Singapore markets by 2024.
For its alternative caviar, the company has combined shrimp cells and seaweed extract.
“As well as providing an answer to existing animal welfare concerns with caviar, this new alternative caviar can be mass-produced, so it will have a certain price competitiveness compared to the existing high-priced caviar,” said Giljun Park, CEO of CellMeat, who added that the final product comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and delivers a ‘less fishy’ flavor and better texture than traditional caviar.
CellMEAT aims to launch its alternative caviar by the end of the year through collaborations with high-end restaurants. However, the raw materials made for cell cultured meat technology must pass the ‘Application for New Food Ingredient Certification’ of the Korean Ministry of Food & Drug Administration before they can be commercialized. Data on origin and development, domestic and international recognition and use status, manufacturing method, raw material characteristics, and safety must be submitted.
CellMEAT completed the construction of its Seoul facility in June 2022, so plans to apply for approval of its caviar and shrimp products in the near future. At full capacity, the plant will first produce more than two million tons of cell-cultured Dokdo shrimp a year, and CellMEAT expects to expand its range of alternative seafood products such as its caviar soon.
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