Photo: R. Hacmac, via Wild Type

Last week Wild Type, the West Coast startup growing salmon in a lab, had the first large-scale taste test of its new product.

In a Medium post, the company detailed a test dinner at Portland, Oregon’s Olympia Oyster bar, which included an assortment of cell-based salmon dishes based on “a variety of culinary traditions.” Menu items included Ceviche Verde, salmon tartare, Hawaiian poke, and spicy salmon sushi rolls, all made with the cultured fish. The dinner, which the company claims was the first to feature cell-based food so extensively, wasn’t open to the public, so there’s no indication how good the cultured fish actually tasted.

Founded in 2016, Wild Type raised a $3.5 million seed round to expand its cell-based salmon R&D in 2018. The company plans to initially release minced salmon and lox and work its way up to full-size filets.

It still has quite a few hurdles to overcome. As with most cellular agriculture (or aquaculture) companies, it can only produce relatively small pieces of lab-grown meat due to scaffolding challenges and other growth constraints.

Wild Type’s salmon can also only be served raw. If it’s heated above 212°F, it will become too flaky fall apart. According to Bloomberg the company plans to debut a new version of the salmon that can be cooked in the next few months.

Pricing is also an issue. The company hopes to sell their salmon at a competitive price to real farmed Atlantic salmon: $7 to $8 per pound. As of now, they estimate that the spicy salmon roll served at the dinner cost a whopping $200 to produce. However cellular agriculture/aquaculture companies are rapidly reducing the cost it takes to make cultured meat, mostly due to improvements in growth media, so it’s likely pricing will go down soon.

Wild Type isn’t the only company trying to get in on the seafood alternative market. Finless Foods is hoping to bring its cell-based bluefin tuna to market by the end of 2019, though likely in a very limited release. In Singapore, Shiok Meats is developing cell-based shrimp (and racking up serious funding along the way), and Avant Meats is making lab-grown fish maw in Hong Kong.

It’ll still be a while until we taste any sort of cultured meat or seafood due to high costs, low production capacity, and regulatory hurdles. Wild Type has yet to release a go-to-market date for their cell-based salmon, but some speculate it’ll be as much as 10 years from now.

However, several plant-based seafood companies are already vying for our plates. Good Catch’s plant-based tuna is now available at Whole Foods, and Ocean Hugger Foods makes alternatives to raw tuna and eel out of vegetables. These options may all be better for the environment than fishing or even growing fish cells in a lab, but at least from my experience, it’s much harder to make plants taste like fish than it is to make them taste like a juicy burger.

Regardless, we have to do something about our dwindling seafood supply. Our oceans are rapidly being depleted through overfishing and aquaculture has its own set of issues. If companies like Wild Type can produce tasty fish to relieve some of the pressure from our oceans, I’m all for it. Even if I have to wait a while to try lab-grown spicy tuna sushi for myself.

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