AsianScientist (May 14, 2020) – Although environmentalists have long spoken out against industrial animal farming due to animal cruelty and the environmental damage it causes, the global demand for meat has only continued to rise. In 2013, 320 million tonnes of meat was produced, four times the amount produced 50 years ago.
To address growing consumer consciousness of the environmental impact of their food choices, a slew of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have burst onto the scene in recent years. Driven by advances in our understanding of what makes meat taste like meat, plant-based meat alternatives are making their way into the mainstream.
Still, those products aren’t really meat—they are ultimately plant products made to taste like meat. Dr. Ling Ka Yi, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Shiok Meats, a Singapore-based company, wants to put a new spin on things with cell-based meats—in particular, crustacean meat.
“Shiok is Singapore and Malaysian slang for tasty, delicious and fun. Shiok Meats, therefore, aims to bring delicious and tasty meat from crustaceans like prawn, crab or lobster into the market in a healthy and environmentally friendly way,” she said.
The idea began when Ling met Dr. Sandhya Sriram, Shiok Meat’s chief executive officer and fellow co-founder, while researching stem cells at the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Singapore. When Sandhya came up with the idea of producing cell-based meat—specifically shrimp meat—using the animal’s stem cells, Ling was intrigued.
Stem cells are cells that can give rise to all other cell types, including the components that we consider to be meat, such as muscle fibers. By harvesting a small number of stem cells from an animal and growing them in a highly controlled environment, it is possible to grow meat in an animal-free way.
“We take stem cells from the animal and grow them into meat. And the meat we get is the same meat that you’ll find on the animal,” Ling explained.
But that is not the only thing Shiok Meats brings to the table; the company is also looking to restore product transparency to the consumer. A 2014 study found that 30 percent of shrimp products carried misrepresented information—like where the shrimps were farmed.
Aside from the fact that mislabeling is often used to cheat consumers by substituting lower priced seafood for more expensive meats, wrongly labelled seafood can also pose a health risk to people who are allergic to certain seafood or pregnant women trying to avoid fish with high levels of mercury. Furthermore, being unable to trace the source of seafood also encourages illegal fishing and the forced labor associated with it.
“It’s hard for people to think about where their food comes from. And if you don’t know where it comes from, you can’t tell what conditions were used to grow it, and that can affect our health in the end,” she said.
Cell-based meats, however, restores that transparency, as what consumers buy is what they ultimately get.
“With cell-based meat, you know exactly where it starts and where it ends. The water we use is clean, and you don’t have to worry about any chemicals or contaminants that might find their way into your food. It’s good for the environment and our health, and no animals have to be harmed in the process,” Ling said.
Nevertheless, Ling acknowledges that there are still some challenges ahead before cell-based meats can become a reality. For example, they still need to find a way to lower the costs and scale up their production, which will require support from the food manufacturing industry. Gaining public acceptance, too, is another challenge.
“There will be people who are resistant to it. But most people become less hesitant once we explain what we do and help them understand what it is,” she said.
Despite all the challenges, Ling remains hopeful that Shiok Meats will commercialize soon, possibly entering the market as early as 2021. Besides shrimp meat, they are also working on other crustacean meats, like lobsters and minced meat products, such as prawn balls.
“I hope that in five to ten years, you’ll be able to buy a packet of Shiok Shrimp or Shiok Crab from the grocery store for dinner,” she concluded.