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Developing the world’s first ocean-free cultured oysters

US-based Pearlita Foods, a cell-based mollusk company, is poised to produce the world’s first “ocean-free” cultured oysters. This follows an investment by Canada’s Cult Food Science, that also has interests in two SA alt-protein startups.

“Farmed oysters face huge threats from rising ocean temperatures and contaminated waters,” Nikita Michelsen, co-founder and CEO of Pearlita, told FoodIngredientsFirst.

“We are providing a healthy and safe alternative for consumption to help meet the demand. This way more oysters can stay in the water longer to do their critical tasks, such as carbon sequestration and filtering water.”  

The financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Pearlita is also not revealing when they expect their product to reach the market.

Cult Food Science has joined Sustainable Food Ventures and Big Idea Ventures New Protein Fund, which previously provided capital for Pearlita.

Investment in sustainability and safety 

The early-stage investment in Pearlita expands Cult Food Science’s focus on the cellular agriculture market. These funds will allow Pearlita to set out to make the first cultivated oyster meat “using ethical, clean and sustainable methods”.

“Just as an animal would, we are creating a mixture of nutrients to raise cells in a controlled environment free of disease or chemical contamination,” says Joey Peters, marine biologist and co-founder of Pearlita. 

“Increasingly polluted waters and bacteria that grows in them means that eating raw oysters can pose a threat to human health, such as norovirus and vibrio bacteria in oysters. It is pretty frightening,” adds Michelsen.

Once ubiquitously found in every ocean, oysters are now in danger of disappearing. According to Cult Food Science research, as much as 85% of wild oyster reefs have been lost globally. 

Cult Food Science adds that “with ocean temperatures rising and contamination, the future of natural oyster farming is uncertain.”

“Cell-based fish and mollusks can be made with current technologies and are currently viewed as a safe alternative to seafood farming that can provide desired health benefits for consumers.” 

In addition, oyster scarcity has made this food one of the most expensive and luxurious seafood products.

The Pearlita niche

While other companies are currently working on cell-based alternatives to seafood, Pearlita is the first business to attempt the recreation of oysters in a lab. Oysters are complicated foods with a shell that is difficult to recreate. In addition, oysters contain many tissues.

“Culturing mollusk seafood has proven to be no easy task because the tissues we eat are so complex. It is actually this complexity that gives them the unique textures and flavours that we love,” says the Pearlita team.

“The oyster meat we are developing is grown without the shell,” says Michelsen. “Although this is a huge challenge, we plan to build a team with a unique culturing expertise to produce this novel, sustainable seafood.”

Other alternative seafood players, such as in the case of salmon, partake in a more competitive market. The Silicon Valley-based start-up, Wildtype, scored $100-million this year to increase its production, receiving funds from a diverse lineup of investors ranging from business tycoon Jeff Bezos to actors such as Leonardo Di Caprio or Robert Downey Jr. 

Another alternative salmon company that received millionaire funding this year was Israeli company Plantish, netting $12.4-million

Cult Food Science has an extended portfolio of companies working on multiple products, which include milk, seafood, honey, collagen, beef and more.

It is a backer of South Africa-based Mogale Meat Co, which recently introduced its first cell-based chicken breast product, hailed as the first-of-its-kind in Africa. The start-up also specialises in cell-based game meat, produced from cells sourced from free-roaming antelope and cattle.

Another SA company in its portfolio De Novo Dairy, which is working toward scaling precision fermentation of dairy. It is currently aiming to commercialise cow-free products to the market, such as ice cream, yogurt or cheese.

Cult Food Science has also invested in Wagyu ribeye beef from Ohayo Valley, another gourmet product. Other investments in cellular agriculture market include Biftek, MeliBio, Cell Ag Tech, Just Good and Novel Farms.


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