A Synthetic Replacement for Shrimp Made by Slaves

The shrimping industry is fraught with human-rights abuses. One startup thinks their plant-based seafood might be the answer.

New Wave Foods' fake shrimp aims to look and taste like the real thing. (New Wave Foods)

SAN FRANCISCO — All across the U.S. and Europe, people eat shrimp peeled by slaves. As the AP found in an investigation last year, hundreds of migrants are kept trapped in warehouses in Thailand, forced to peel shrimp for hours on end and sleep in filthy dorms. The workers’ papers are confiscated so they can’t leave, and they make about $4 for each 15-hour workday. When one of the workers the AP interviewed tried to escape, her boss dragged her back by her hair.

Shrimp from factories like these ended up in the supply chains of Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden, the AP found.

The industry is fueled by corruption and lax law enforcement in Thailand, but also by Western grocery shoppers’ tastes. Shrimp is now the most popular seafood Americans eat. But we prefer it peeled, so suppliers are cutting corners to deliver stir-fry-ready shrimp on the cheap.

“Americans love shrimp because of its low price and conduciveness to being heavily breaded and fried,” said Emily Balsamo, a research analyst at Euromonitor International. “Most consumers are not aware of the [slavery] issue and continue to consume shrimp.”

* * *

Two years ago, Dominique Barnes, the founder of a startup called New Wave Foods, was growing increasingly concerned about the environmental and human-rights costs of fresh seafood. She studied everything from overfishing to water pollution as a grad student in marine conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

She was living in San Diego when a friend introduced her to Michelle Wolf, a materials scientist with a degree from Carnegie Mellon. They hit it off instantly and talked about their shared dream of making seafood more sustainable. They thought up an unusual way to do it: By making it out of plants and algae, in a lab.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

This past September, they were accepted to IndieBio, an accelerator in San Francisco dedicated to synthetic biology startups. Now, they say they are about eight months away from launching their first product, a popcorn “shrimp” that never touches an ocean.

Though Barnes and Wolf did use beakers and other lab equipment to perfect their shrimp, Barnes cautions that it’s not the same as lab-cultured beef, another synthetic protein that made a splash recently. Instead, they are breaking down red algae, a food prawns eat to give them their pinkish color, and combining it with plant-based protein powder. The faux-shrimp, Barnes says, looks and tastes like the real thing, down to the elasticity and fishy tang.

“We’re not reproducing shrimp cells,” Barnes said. “We use a process that's similar to baking a loaf of bread.”

It’s also not the same as crab stick, or fake crab meat, which Barnes calls “fish baloney.” New Wave won’t use other shrimp parts for its shrimp.

Its first product will be a small shrimp that’s disguised in breading, but they ultimately hope to create a “naked” shrimp that can be used for shrimp cocktails and expand to other types of fish as well.

* * *

The odds are good for New Wave and the other fake-meat startups that have stirred up investor interest recently. Fake meat has gone mainstream, with 42 percent of consumers eating things like tofu and veggie burgers occasionally, according to research by Technomic.

“When consumers are given two options, and the options are price competitive, equally convenient, and similarly tasty, but one of them has no sustainability or slave-labor issues, and one is made from animals in a way that is environmentally problematic and that supports a human-slave-trade, people are going to choose the plant-based alternative,” said Bruce Friedrich, the director of the Good Food Institute, which invests in and promotes meat alternatives.

Still, with the exception of quinoa, plant-based proteins aren’t seeing significant uptake on restaurant menus, according to Technomic analyst Lizzy Freier.

Barnes anticipates it will be tough to sell Americans on the idea that algae can be palatable, “even though you find it in ice cream and yogurt.”

Freier felt similarly, saying “I can’t imagine consumers would be very open and willing to try algae-based ‘shrimp’ in a grocer setting, or anywhere for that matter. Though consumers are increasingly willing to try new foods … there are some lines most consumers will not cross.”

We live in a world where New Yorkers are chugging hot meat juice from paper cups, though, so stranger things have happened. And the stakes in seafood, with its forced-labor and sustainability woes, are much higher.

Barnes said making her own seafood is a faster way to reform the shrimping industry than trying to work within slow government bureaucracies—or simply telling people to eat less shrimp.

Looking back on long days of eating dozens of shrimp in order to capture their exact flavor and texture, she can now recommend another path to marine conservation, however. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll just encourage everyone to start their own seafood startup,” Barnes joked. “Once you eat enough of something, you’re kind of over it.”