Singapore’s Umami Meats Focuses on Endangered Species for Farmed Fish Success

The company recently secured $2.4 million in funding from a group of international investors, including new venture capital fund Better Bite Ventures, and plans to use these funds to further develop its proprietary technology to reduce product costs and produce its first demonstration products.

“Our priority is on fish species that are difficult to domesticate because they are too difficult to raise or the economy does not make sense, but which are very popular in Asian cuisines and therefore end up being classified threatened or endangered in the IUCN Red List”,Umami Meats co-founder and CEO Mihir Pershad said FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“The top three we are looking at are Japanese eel, yellowfin tuna and red snapper – all popular in various types of Asian cuisines from Japan to China and we are seeing very strong consumer demand.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is essentially an inventory of the overall conservation status of various species around the world, widely regarded as the most comprehensive and accepted authority for determining the risk of species extinction.

Of the three species that Umami Meats focuses on, the Japanese eel is listed as endangered and the red snapper is vulnerable. Yellowfin tuna have been listed as Near Threatened for many years and have recently been upgraded to Least Concern indicating a decreasing risk of extinction, but the IUCN continues to identify them as being overfished in places such as the Indian Ocean.

For Pershad, the goal is to help consumers move away from unreliable seafood supply chains and improve food safety by providing an option that doesn’t require them to make too many changes.

“Despite the sustainability benefits, it will be very difficult for people to change their eating habits, so what food manufacturers need to do is produce an alternative that can effectively replace the real thing,”he said.

“For us, cultured seafood basically means replacing the real one with the same – just more sustainable, because it’s basically as close to the same as possible, and that will make switching easier and easier for consumers. ”

Umami Foods is aiming for a 2024 product launch with what it calls blended products – essentially a hybrid of plant-based and cultured fish meat.

“Asia is of course a price-sensitive market and cultured seafood is going to be expensive on its own, not to mention the rising cost of materials these days, so we’re looking first at using products mixed to bring prices closer to parity as possible at initial launch,”said Pershad.

“We are aiming to launch as a B2B business model first, which means the first product launches in 2024 will hopefully be with business partners – that will be our plan to scale up. First, then later we will also look at other parts of the supply chain and perhaps our own brands, but scale is most important at the outset.

“B2B with large companies will also allow us to work with many different species to expand our portfolio, and they can really leverage our technology to manufacture products for Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Malaysia, where it would take us years and years to be able to reach them in any country, it would help us cover a much faster distance.

The company also has a unique source of proprietary non-GMO cell lines that enables the production of fast-growing stem cells that can also transform into muscle and fat, allowing the same cells to be cultured in a reservoir and then differentiated. in muscle and fat.

“It’s a more efficient production system and it’s also what will help reduce costs – One set of tanks is much cheaper than two sets of tanks, and the cost savings will also get us closer to parity faster. prices”,said Pershad.

Seafood grown in Singapore

Singapore is of course the first country in the world to approve the consumption of cell-grown chicken, and Pershad is also optimistic about Umami Meats’ chances in the future – and to do this the company is in constant communication with local food. Singapore Food Agency (SFA) regarding the safety and development of its products.

“We have not yet reached the application stage as we need the final product and prototypes for this, but we have had conversations with the SFA regarding our cell lines and developments regarding food safety requirements for make sure that we maximize our chances”,said Pershad.

The SFA has previously stressed that food safety is the key criterion in its considerations for regulatory approvals of alternative protein products, and also urged affected companies to “implement as soon as possible” in their development process.

Remaining challenges

Regarding remaining barriers to commercialization, Pershad highlighted the elimination of bovine serum from growth media and the move away from high-priced pharmaceutical ingredients as general challenges facing the cultured meat industry.

“For seafood in particular, we see challenges such that many current media and antibodies for characterization are developed for mammals and generally do not work for fish, in addition to cell line supply challenges due to the fact that they are not farmed species”,he said.

“Additionally, current genome data for these species is much less available, making it harder for us to determine how to say turn a cell into muscle or fat faster for seafood.”

Despite all this, Umami Meats aims to establish its pilot facility in 2024 and have its products at less than 10% of the market price at launch.

“I think with a blended product that’s absolutely doable based on those timelines, but for 100%, cell-based products, we’re looking at a few years beyond, probably around 2027, I think, for parity cheap prices with 100% cellular”,said Pershad.

“And the biggest variable there is scale – there are some things where you need a big enough setup to hit that kind of price point, but we’re optimistic.”

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