Scripps Presents: A Conversation on Plant-Based Seafood

Isabel Li ’25
Staff Writer

On April 19, Scripps Presents hosted “The Future of Food” in Balch Auditorium, an event from this month’s series relating to food, food justice, and food sustainability. Specifically, this event featured scientists Aryé Elfenbein and Taeryn Kim, the two co-leads of San Francisco-based company Wildtype Foods, which specializes in lab-grown salmon. Elina Shatkin, the producer of the KCRW podcast Good Food, interviewed Elfenbein and Kim and discussed the future of their cultivated seafood startup.

The event began with Elfenbein and Kim displaying a brief presentation on the projector and discussing why it is necessary to create a new source of fish. With their colorful, eye-catching slides, they argued that factors such as overfishing, global warming, plastic pollution, and mercury contamination have contributed to declining sources of healthy seafood. The two scientists also talked about the general lack of transparency in the seafood industry regarding where and how the fish are caught and processed.

Elfenbein then introduced Wildtype’s primary product on the screen: a fresh, delicious-looking raw salmon strip, served as nigiri sushi. The product looked virtually indistinguishable from a normal, conventionally made salmon dish, with the same recognizable pink-orange color and translucent white stripes.

Kim discussed Wildtype’s approach to producing the lab-grown salmon with a flowchart infographic. The company would start by taking cells from one small salmon fish and propagating these cells in large steel tanks resembling those used in a beer brewery. To replicate the iconic texture and flavor of the salmon, the Wildtype team would create a scaffold from plant-based proteins and carbohydrates and incorporate the cells into the structure.

After the cells mature into the scaffold, the final sample of cultivated salmon is complete and ready to eat. “All of our salmon samples come from those cells that we took years ago from a single fish,” said Kim.

Since the meat does not come directly from a live salmon, no fish would need to be killed for Wildtype’s meat. The salmon products are not exposed to any antibiotics, heavy metals, or microplastics, which are commonly found in conventionally caught fish. The two scientists discussed more about the ethical and health-related benefits of their products with Shatkin, who nodded in approval.

When Shatkin asked the two panelists about their visions and goals for the startup, Elfenbein said that he plans to have Wildtype’s plant-based seafood accessible in local grocery stores, sold at a price lower than normal salmon. However, bringing Wildtype to market depends on two factors: infrastructure and FDA regulation. The startup is looking for ways to sustainably and efficiently grow cells at a large scale while seeking FDA approval, which has been a smooth but slow process.

Shatkin also asked them about how they refer to their products — terms such as “lab-grown,” “cell-based,” or “in vitro” may sound unappealing to those who value naturally sourced foods.

“Words have power, and there’s a lot of rhetoric [for these meats] that sound artificial and unnatural,” said Elfenbein, who usually refers to the salmon as “cultured meat.”

“I prefer the term ‘cultivated seafood,’” said Kim. “The term ‘cell-based meat’ does not make sense, since plants are also made of cells.”

Elfenbein and Kim also explained their focus on lab-grown salmon rather than other types of seafood. Since Wildtype is based in San Francisco, a place known for its salmon, they thought it would be helpful to produce a plant-based version of a local delicacy. Furthermore, salmon is the second-most consumed seafood in the United States and is very versatile in terms of cooking.

Wildtype is currently experimenting with different processes that mimic real meat. However, they are planning to produce other types of popular seafood, like shrimp and tuna, in the future.

Kim talked about her experience taste-testing the salmon samples and mentioned the variation in taste and texture with how the meat is prepared. To capture the range of recognizable tastes of salmon, the startup has produced two types of cultivated salmon: one meant to be served raw, and the other able to be cooked and baked.

The two leaders also said that they plan to start supplying a handful of restaurants in the Bay Area once their product first gets launched. Their facility also offers tours to those who are curious about Wildtype’s processes, with glass windows for visitors to clearly see how the salmon is made.

Although it is unlikely that plant-based meat will completely replace normal fishing practices, both Elfenbein and Kim are optimistic that the addition of Wildtype salmon to shelves nationwide can provide consumers with a more sustainable, ethical, and safer alternative to normal seafood. Overall, during a time when sustainability and conservation are so crucial to providing a better future for posterity, small initiatives and efforts like these can make a great difference in the long term.

Image Source: Isabel Li ’25