Seattle CEO prepares to bring lab-grown salmon to sushi bars, grocery stores

KIRO Newsradio, Features reporter

Meat substitutes have evolved over the years from tofu hot dogs and black bean burgers, to today’s Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat products that extract proteins and fats from plants and process them to mimic the taste and structure of real meat.

But the next generation of sustainable, cruelty-free meat and fish will be made from … actual meat and fish. A company called Wildtype is already growing cuts of Coho salmon using salmon cells.

“We grow salmon cells in large stainless steel tanks, very similar to what you’d see in a brewery,” said Justin Kolbeck, the Seattle-based CEO and co-founder of Wildtype. “Once they get to a certain density, we concentrate those cells and put them into a plant-based matrix that gives the cells the right structure and the right signals to mature and grow into the different cuts of seafood that we love to eat.”

It’s sustainable, but is it cruelty free? Were any salmon harmed in the process?

“Yes,” Kolbeck said. “One brave fish did give its life to get this process started. That was almost three years ago, and from that one fish we have made hundreds of pounds of salmon in the subsequent years. So it’s not entirely harm-free, but we haven’t really looked at a salmon in a bunch of years.”

Wildtype doesn’t grow whole fish, just the parts that people want to eat.

“The finished product is what we call a salmon Saku. So if you’ve ever been to a sushi restaurant and sat behind the sushi counter, those long, rectangular cuts of fish are what we’re making. So think about it as, like, a half-pound filet of salmon that’s used to carve off pieces of sashimi, nigiri, and then the bits that are leftover go into salmon rolls, for example.”

Kolbeck says Wildtype’s salmon tastes very close to the original.

“We’ve done probably hundreds of tastings with chefs and they were blown away by how good it was,” he said. “We actually did a DNA test on our salmon cells and there is no difference [between Wildtype and wild or farmed salmon]. But there is a little bit of a difference; we do use a plant-based matrix to give the cells the right structure and textures.”

Wildtype is still in the process of getting FDA approval, but they just announced partnerships with two companies that will serve the salmon as soon as they get the go-ahead: Snowfox, which operates sushi bars in over 1,200 grocery stores, and Pokeworks, a nationwide poke chain.

The hope is to eventually have Wildtype salmon widely available in sushi bars and grocery stores. Though Kolbeck says the product might be slightly more expensive than traditional salmon at first.

“As you might appreciate, we’re still at a pretty small scale,” Kolbeck said. “But eventually, we think we’ll be lower cost than conventional salmon, which is something I’m personally so passionate about. Remember, we’re not growing the whole fish only to throw away half of its weight with fins, and heads, and bones, and other things that we can’t eat.”

There are predictions that salmon will go extinct by the middle half of this century, and Kolbeck’s hope is that Wildtype will be a third option to wild and farmed fish.

“The purest salmon you can get with no mercury, no microplastics, no antibiotics, no parasites,” he said about Wildtype. “And a nutritional label that’s almost identical to what you’d find in the most pristine wild caught salmon that you’d find in the marketplace.”

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