Would you eat lab-grown fish? You might soon be able to

Is 'lab-grown' meat ready for the mainstream? The FDA in the United States is trying to figure that out.

Animal protein produced without animals is no longer science fiction, but it’s not yet available to consumers

Mike Selden, the CEO of Finless Foods, says despite slight differences, he's creating the same sensory experience in terms of taste, smell and health properties. (Gaak/Shutterstock)

Soon, fishing will be obsolete. That's the promise from Finless Foods, a California-based startup that has developed technology that allows it to "make" fish.

Dozens of other companies have come up with marketable man-made animal proteins referred to as clean meat, lab-grown meat, animal free or slaughter-free.

Still, one major hurdle still remains: Regulation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently dipped a toe into the debate at a public hearing on the issue. They're attempting to sort out what animal protein is without animals.

Mike Selden, the CEO of Finless Foods, says it's different from other disruptive technologies like Uber and Airbnb that went big only to have frustrated regulators trying to play catch up.

"We can't throw our products on the market and hope for the best. We can't move with the 'better to beg forgiveness than ask permission model,'" said Selden. "When people don't have an open and honest conversation about what's in the food they're eating, they lose trust in it. We don't want to make that mistake."

If you ask the beef industry, this new stuff shouldn't even be called meat as it doesn't fit the description of what consumers consider to be real animal protein.

Freezing criticism with the history of ice

According to Selden, we've been here before: in the early 20th century.

Before freezers came along, ice was a harvested commodity. It was cut from lakes and shipped to consumers. But all that changed with the advent of freezers. Suddenly, people had the ability to make a product that previously had to be harvested.

"There was no move to label that 'lab-made ice' or 'man-made ice' or 'artificial ice.' It's just ice. Because to the end user, it's exactly the same thing. It still made your drinks cold," said Selden.

He's hoping for a similar adoption of his products because, he says, despite slight differences, he's creating the same sensory experience.

"Taste, smell, health properties. If all these things are the same thing, the fact that it isn't the exact, exact, exact same thing isn't super important," said Selden.

American outcome will likely influence Canadian regulators in the future

As the FDA gets its bearings on the issue, Selden says he's looking beyond the U.S. to the Canadian market.

"One of the advantages of going to the U.S. regulatory system is that a lot of others do look at it," he said. "I know the Canadian and U.S. regulatory systems look at each other for support and when something goes through one, generally the other will accept it on the same evidence. We want to have conversations with both and bringing this to everyone we can."

Instead of fishing, or harvesting living fish and seafood, Finless Foods produces the same fresh fish proteins by growing high quality marine animal cells. (Finless Foods)

Even when the regulators are won over, companies like Selden's will still have the challenge of winning over consumers.

While meat made without animals isn't currently available for sale, some in the industry suggest it could be on the market in some places by the end of the year.

For others, the technology is still far too expensive to make and it may be years before the product becomes affordable enough for general consumers.


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.


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