Lab-grown unagi could arrive at dinner tables as early as 2024 in Singapore

Cell cultured fish cakes from Umami Meats.- The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE, Jan 8 (The Straits Times/ANN): Cell-cultured meat of the Japanese eel and other exotic fish may be added to restaurant menus by 2024, thanks to a collaboration between Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) and Singapore food-tech start-up Umami Meats.

They have successfully grown in the laboratory the meat of fish species such as the freshwater eel, or unagi, the humpback grouper, the orange-spotted grouper and the red snapper.

Umami Meats chief executive Mihir Pershad told The Straits Times: “Our plan is to have the first of these products not in a FairPrice (supermarket), but on plates in restaurants by 2024.

“Our goal is that when we release it, it will be at price parity with normal unagi in restaurants. It isn’t cheap enough to be sold as street food yet, but our goal is for a consumer to go into a restaurant and not notice the price difference at that high end.”

Global fish populations have been dwindling rapidly, and eel populations are a tenth of what they used to be in the 1960s.

While Singapore fish farms now commercially produce common fish species such as snakehead, seabass and tilapia, exotic fish species are harder to farm, said NYP research team leader Mark Richards.

“There are many unknowns. Sometimes, animals in captivity just cannot breed because of sub-optimal conditions,” he said.

“Scientists and farmers have only completed understanding the life cycles of a few common fish species. And it requires a lot of work and research, without any guarantee of success.”

Mihir said it was also hard to get funding to farm exotic fish for meat.

“Even if we know the biology to complete the life cycle of, for example, the bluefin tuna, it costs so much to grow the bluefin tuna in captivity that it’s not economically viable. Nobody will pay what it costs to do it,” he added.

NYP students Low Wen Xi, Melody Yap Rui Zhen and Alex Gabriel Chong Teck Wei, led by Dr Richards from the School of Applied Science, managed to culture meat from the stem cells of fish using plant-based growth serum that they had developed.

Traditional cell culture uses the ethically controversial foetal bovine serum, which comes from calf foetuses.

The NYP team took a year to develop its serum, which is extracted from a plant from the bean family.

Umami Meats, which says it is currently the only company to develop lab-grown exotic fish meat, plans to eventually market its products overseas.

“The scalability is happening step by step... Most of 2023 is going to be focused on getting to the low end of an industrial scale,” said Mr Mihir.

“Ideally, our products will reach the shelves of supermarkets in three or four countries by the end of 2026.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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