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The company collaborated with a Japanese chef to create unagi kabayaki, marinated grilled eel over rice. Photograph: Anatoly Michaello
Agriculture food

Reinventing the eel: first lab-grown eel meat revealed

Wild freshwater eels are at risk of extinction due to overfishing but their meat can now be cultivated from cells

The first lab-grown freshwater eel meat has been produced, potentially solving a diner’s dilemma. Rampant overfishing has caused eel populations to plummet and prices to soar, but the cultivated eel could provide the delicacy guilt-free.

The eel meat was produced by Forsea Foods in Israel from embryonic cells of a freshwater eel. The company collaborated with a Japanese chef to create unagi kabayaki, marinated grilled eel over rice, and unagi nigiri, a type of sushi.

The company aims to scale up its operation and have the cultivated eel on sale in about two years. Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, last year backed the development of a cultivated meat industry. The restaurant price in Japan is about $250 a kilogram, and Forsea Foods expects the price of the cultivated eel to match that of the wild-caught eel.

Overfishing and pollution have contributed to eel populations crashing around the world and led to illegal trafficking of the species worth billions of dollars. Consumption of eel in Japan has fallen by 80% since 2000, said Roee Nir, the chief executive of Forsea Foods: “This is a high-priced fish and there is no one to supply it.”

“It has a very unique flavour and texture – it’s very tender and fatty but also has a unique umami flavour and we’re working to capture this,” said Nir. The current prototype will undergo further improvements before going on sale, he said.

Chef Katsumi Kusumoto, who runs the vegan restaurant Saido in Tokyo, said. “Unagi is an enduring favourite in Japan. But its timeless appeal is impacted by a growing awareness of the need to take a more sustainable approach.”

Forsea Foods’ strategy is to target species at risk of extinction in the wild that also command high prices in restaurants and shops, with eel meeting both criteria. The very complex life cycle of eels, involving long migrations from rivers to the ocean and several distinct life stages, means it is not possible to farm them like some fish.

The cultivated eel was produced using organoids, tiny bundles of tissue originally developed for use in medical research. The organoids are made of embryonic stem cells taken from fertilised eel eggs. These cells can develop into any kind of tissue and, as they grow, they self-organise into the structure of real meat. The final product also contains some plant-based ingredients.

Other approaches to cultivated meat require greater use of expensive growth factor chemicals and scaffolds for cells to grow on, Nir said. The technique is particularly suited to fish and seafood, whose meat is fairly uniform unlike, for example, marbled beef, he said. Like other cultivated meat, the product is not produced using antibiotics or hormones.

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Forsea Foods is the only company known to be producing cultivated meat using this technology. The company has raised $5.2m (£4.1m) in investment, with more expected to be announced soon.

Seren Kell, at thinktank Good Food Institute Europe, said: “The pioneering use of organoids could provide companies with the ability to tap into animal cells’ inherent self-organising properties, effectively outsourcing the difficult task of developing cultivated meat and seafood onto nature itself.”

“Cultivated seafood pioneers are developing healthy and sustainable alternatives to an ever-growing range of local delicacies, giving people the food they love without contributing to problems such as overfishing and the destruction of precious marine habitats,” she said. The GFI provided research funding to Forsea from 2021-23.

In the US, Wildtype is growing salmon and BlueNalu tuna, Steakholder Foods in Israel has produced cultivated grouper fish, while Shiok Meats in Singapore is targeting shrimp, lobster and crab, and Cell4Food in the Azores is working on cultivated octopus.

Earlier this week, Aleph Farms in Israel became the first company in the world to get regulatory health approval for cultivated beef. Two US companies, Good Meat and Upside foods, already have approval for cultivated chicken. Good Meat was the first to sell cultivated meat to the public, in Singapore in 2020.

Cultivated meat is expected to have a much lower environmental footprint than meat from livestock. Scientists have said that avoiding conventional meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.



Damian Carrington at The Guardian

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