The development of cell-based food has been met with a mix of fervour and a rush of investment dollars but also scepticism about its mass-market credentials. However, a start-up in Israel has produced the first cultivated eel and is a firm believer in the potential of its product and the wider technology.

Using the embryonic cells of the endangered freshwater eel, Forsea Foods has developed the first prototype of cultivated eel (Unagi), which it unveiled earlier this month.

Only two countries (the US and Singapore) have given the green light to the commercial sale of cell-based food. Earlier this month, Israel took a significant step towards approving the sale of cultivated beef.

Nevertheless, Forsea has high hopes for its product’s future, seeking partners in Japan – where there is strong demand for Unagi – and across Asia, where it hopes to launch commercially in 2025.

The development reopens questions about the potential growth of cell-based food and the challenges it still faces. Yet, with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicting global livestock emissions will reach almost 9.1 GtCO2eq by 2050, there remain plenty of investors and entrepreneurs who see cell-based food as central to the future of food.

Speaking to Just Food, Forsea Foods co-founder and CEO Roee Nir explained why the product’s development is significant.

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By GlobalData

“Freshwater eel – Unagi – is an endangered species that cannot be bred in captivity. The eel population has declined more than 90% in the last three decades,” he said. “Its price is high and it has a huge market demand. The consumption of Unagi in Japan declined fivefold due to the limited supply because there is no way to breed this fish in captivity.

“The only way to close the supply-demand gap is by cultivated eel. This is a win-win solution: good for the planet, good for the people and, most of all, doesn’t harm the eel population.”

By Nir’s logic, cell-based seafood could provide solutions to overfishing. His counterparts in cell-based meat argue the technology could solve the environmental problems associated with the wider meat industry.

However, the commercial shift from traditional protein to cell-based will not be straightforward.

“The challenges for the commercialisation of cultured meat can be broadly summarised as cost, regulatory approval, energy-intensive production, ethical concern over the use of fetal bovine serum and persuading the consumer (health, safety, and sensory objections),” GlobalData analyst Hannah Cleland explains.

With cultivated meat only currently commercially available in two markets globally, getting products on sale is already proving to be a significant hurdle. Good Meat and Upside Foods – manufacturers of cell-based chicken – are selling into a handful of restaurants, but a much broader uptake is required if the fledgling industry is ever to spread its wings.

Yet Nick Cooney, from Lever VC, is confident cell-based food’s potential will translate into commercial success with time. “Cultivated meat allows for a higher quality product with dramatically lower rates of salmonella and e.coli, longer shelf life, and the ability to create novel products and product formats.

“It completely removes all of the negative externalities of industrial live animal production, which causes extreme animal cruelty, is the largest polluter of water and second largest polluter of air, creates highly pathogenic diseases like avian flu, swine flu and possibly Covid-19 and is the source of over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN FAO.”

Meanwhile, cost is an obstacle already being overcome. Cleland points out that the price of a cultivated meat burger decreased from $330,000 in 2013 to $9.80 in 2022. Initial consumers are likely to be in the luxury and upper-middle ends of the spectrum. However, falling production costs and consumer curiosity will drive prices down over time.

Cooney suggests high-end restaurants and supermarkets, along with e-commerce, might present the earliest opportunities for producers, noting that “as long as cultivated meat companies can deliver on price, taste and marketing like any other food company, the market is pretty clearly there for the cultivated meat category”.

Cleland also considers regulatory and ethical concerns are likely to be overcome. “In terms of the sustainability, regulatory, and ethical concerns many companies are innovating ways to address these currently. For example, Meatable already produces lab meat without the use of FBS [fetal bovine serum].

“Many of these concerns are similar to concerns raised about the artificial intelligence boom last year. It will ultimately be a question of the companies and regulatory and governing bodies working together towards the same sustainable end goal.”

Is Forsea’s eel “unique” enough to shock the market?

Forsea’s production processes begin in a bioreactor. The eel working cell line is inserted and cultivated using the company’s organoid technology before the biomass is harvested as a key ingredient for the finished product. Nir describes the result as having a “unique, distinct flavour and texture characteristics”, which are “mimicking the traditional product tasting experience”.

Of how the production methods translate onto the plate, he says: “The current common practice of cultivated meat production uses directed differentiation methods. Cells are directed to become specific cell types such as muscle or fat. Our proprietary organoid technology focuses on helping stem cells form 3D micro-tissues (organoids) that spontaneously differentiate into edible cells – just like in nature. As such, our tissues are a natural composition of fat, muscle and connective tissue.”

If successful in finding a market, cultivated eel represents a new frontier in the cell-based meat industry. Global demand for seafood is set to increase massively, with the Blue Food Assessment (BFA) projecting that global aquatic food consumption will reach almost 155m tonnes by 2050, compared to 80m tonnes in 2015. If seafood cultivation could be scaled, demand could potentially be met without the need for overfishing.

The myriad of environmental, social and health problems associated with the falling availability of uncontaminated seafood is the backdrop against which Nir argues that “the best solution to solve the supply-demand gap is producing cultivated seafood.”

Can cell-based food become the Tesla of food?

Choosing an expensive foodstuff to cultivate and commercialise may seem high risk when even cell-based chicken is yet to really ruffle feathers. However, having won the Startup Pitch Hour Prize at the October 2023 Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit in Singapore, Forsea is confident in its approach and transparent about its strategy.

“Our strategy is to target only fish species with a high price point, that have a large market that cannot be met by current production methods, and also only species that are at risk,” Nir says. “The eel population, which has declined more than 90% in recent decades, is an endangered species. It has a high price point and a market estimated in billions of dollars.”

More broadly, Cooney considers that the innovation behind cell-based meat could be precisely what defines its market. “We think that, over the long term, the prospects for cultivated meat are excellent. Cultivated meat is to meat what electric cars are to cars: a new way of producing an existing product that is both significantly more sustainable and that allows over time for significant improvements in quality and experience…

“One question in general that we will have to wait to see the answer to is how big these types of luxury product markets could be for cultivated meat products specifically and how much consumers of luxury meat products embrace cultivated products … Maybe shifting from conventional to cultivated will convey some status for these gourmet food aficionados in the same way buying a Tesla has seemed to do.”