Image: Catherine Lamb

Last week we wrote a think piece about how cultured meat — that is, meat grown outside the animal in a lab setting — will likely debut in Asia. Part of the reasoning behind this is because of all the innovative cellular agriculture startups popping up in the area, targeting local cultural demands and restrictions.

One of said innovative startups is Avant Meats, a new cell-based meat company operating out of Hong Kong. Avant Meats isn’t developing cultured burgers, sausages, steaks, or tuna — but fish maw.

Many Westerners (the author included) have never come across fish maw, or dried swim bladder. Upon first glance it might seem like an odd choice. But there are a few very good reasons why Avant Meats is starting with this particular food item:

First and foremost, it’s easy(er) to make. Unlike a cut of meat like steak, which requires muscle cells, fat cells, and connective tissue, fish maw is made up of only one cell type. That simplicity allows Avant Meats to grow a fish maw from scratch in as little as one and a half months. “The route to scaling up is much simpler,” Avant Meats CEO and co-founder Carrie Chan told me over the phone.

The choice of fish maw was also a strategic nod to Avant Meats’ target demographic: consumers in China and Hong Kong. “Our food culture is very different from the West,” said Chan. Dried fish swim bladder is considered a delicacy in traditional Chinese cuisine, prized for its texture and purported health benefits.

There’s also an environmental aspect at play. Fish maw is in such high demand in China that the two main fish species that are hunted for it — Bahaba and Totoba — are on the brink of extinction. There are even black markets dedicated to the bladders, which can fetch up to HK$1 million ($~127,000) per kilogram. “It’s similar to shark fin,” explained Chan.

Finally, there’s a health and safety consideration. China struggles with food traceability issues. In fact, last year a study from Food Control found that more than half of the fish fillets sold under commercial brands were mislabeled. By growing food in a lab — especially products as rare and coveted as fish maw — consumers can know exactly what they’re getting and where it came from.

Photo: Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash.

As noted in the intro, Avant Meats isn’t the only cell-based meat company targeting Asia as their launch pad. JUST, who is aiming to be the first to bring cultured meat to market, announced recently that the product will likely debut in Asia. In Singapore, Shiok Meats is developing cell-based crustaceans. Part of the reason so many cultured meat companies are looking to Asia is because it has relatively looser regulatory standards, especially in Hong Kong.

Chan was hesitant to speak too much about the regulatory framework in Hong Kong, where Avant Meats is headquartered, but did admit that it’s an ideal place to launch a new food product. “It has a very robust market and lots of disposable income,” she told me.

Though they have a very developed strategy, Avant Meats is a very new startup — even in a field that’s quite new itself. Chan started the company in July of last year, and was recently joined by Dr. Mario Chin, her co-founder and the company’s CSO (and only other employee).

Considering their late start and lean team, Avant Meats likely won’t be part of the first wave of companies selling clean meat. Chan said that they expect to have a commercial product out in three to four years, though they’ll be doing taste tests of their fish maw in Q3 or Q4 of this year. But she believes their strategy to start with a simple, unique product will help them stand out. “We’re starting behind the other guys, so we better find something that’s commercially more pragmatic,” she explained.

Fish maw is just the first stepping stone for the company. Down the road, Avant Meats will expand their lineup, developing more complex seafood products. Chan told me that next they’ll look into making sea cucumber. Their end goal is to make an entire fish filet, likely using some scaffolding to help emulate the texture.

Chan didn’t specify what type of fish they would be tackling. There are a couple cellular aquaculture companies further along in the development process. Finless Foods is developing cell-based bluefin tuna, and Wild Type is growing salmon.

However, both these companies are based in the U.S. Avant Meats’ Hong Kong HQ and strategic product choice could help them stand out in a field that’s getting more exciting — and more crowded — by the day.

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