The cultured meat industry has been growing rapidly, with major production facilities under construction and the approval process for finished products inching forward. However, most of the focus has been on ground beef, chicken, pork, and steak, while fish have been largely left out of the fray. But that may be changing. Last month, Steakholder Foods, an Israeli company, announced that it had 3D-printed a ready-to-cook fish fillet using cells grown in a bioreactor.

According to the company, this fish fillet is the first of its kind in the world, and they are aiming to commercialize the 3D bioprinter used to create it. While the industry has been successful in creating lab-grown chicken and beef, fish have presented a unique set of challenges. However, the 3D printing process has allowed Steakholder Foods to create a fillet with a flaky texture, just like real fish when cooked well.

The company partnered with Umami Meats, a Singapore-based firm working on cultured seafood, to produce the fish cells used in the fillet. Umami extracted cells from a fish (in a process that doesn’t harm the fish), mixed them with a cocktail of nutrients, and made them divide, multiply, and mature. The cells were then signaled to turn into muscle and fat, which were harvested and formed into a finished product.

Steakholder Foods took the harvested cells and added them to a “bio-ink” that also contained plant-based ingredients. The use of plant-based ingredients was mostly for cost reduction, which makes the final cost of the fish fillet more affordable. Layers of cells were printed one after the other, with the fillet growing until it looked like a real fish fillet.

The type of fish used for this fillet was grouper, a “large-mouthed heavy-bodied” fish that tends to live in warm seas. Umami claims that its lab-grown grouper is healthier than the ocean-swimming version since it doesn’t contain any antibiotics, mercury, or microplastics that can unfortunately be found in wild and farmed fish.

The consumption of meat has come under fire due to the high resources required to raise animals like cattle and chickens and the emissions created by factory farming. Farmed fish also have their own set of problems, with overfishing depleting wild populations of all kinds of fish, including grouper, and warming waters throwing off marine ecosystems’ natural balance.

However, the cultured meat industry has faced criticism due to the high costs, scalability issues, and biological limitations of the product, and fish is no different. While the idea of 3D printing fillets from a mix of fish and plant cells seems like a viable solution, it may not be feasible in practice. It has taken decades to establish the current system of raising and slaughtering whole animals, and it may take decades to replace it, if that is possible at all.

Umami CEO Mihir Pershad believes that consumers should choose products based on how they taste and what they can do for the environment. He wants to take cost off the table as a consideration. However, this may be unrealistic, especially in times of market uncertainty and high inflation. It is unlikely that many consumers can afford to choose products based solely on their environmental impact.

Steakholder Foods CEO Arik Kaufman remains optimistic. He believes that as time goes by, the complexity and level of these products will be higher, and the prices linked to producing them will decrease. Umami has ironed out its production process for grouper and eel cells and wants to add three more species to the list this year. The company hopes to bring its first products to market next year, starting in Singapore and eventually expanding to the US and Japan.

By Impact Lab