UMAMI Meats Aims To Be At The Forefront Of The Cultivated Meat Era In SEA

Disruptr speaks to Mihir Pershad, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Umami Meats, who shares insights on the growing concerns of food security, sentiments towards cultivated meat in Singapore and Malaysia, and the mechanics behind UMAMI.  

According to Mihir Pershad, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Umami Meats, the market for alternative protein and cultivated meat is still quite early in most of Southeast Asia, with most consumers having never heard of the term and possibly not know of any potential benefits. 

However, initial research conducted by Umami Meats with a market research firm found that across 4 major markets in Asia, awareness of cultivated seafood and meat leads to a 300% increase in willingness to consume these products. 

For this reason, Pershad and his team thinks education and awareness campaigns will be critical to building the market for cultivated products in Malaysia and in Asia more broadly, with Umami Meats being at the forefront of this progress.  

As for the region, Mihir says response through their multiple tasting events with leaders at traditional food companies, fishing companies and senior government officials have proven to be positive. 

However, most consumers in Southeast Asia do not have high awareness of cultivated meat or alternative proteins in general. 

“Our initial consumer perception studies have covered several key markets, including Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In these studies, we found that consumer awareness of cultivated seafood is lower than in the US and Europe (except in Singapore) but the willingness to try is generally higher among consumers who have some awareness of cultivated meat and seafood.  

The Mechanics Behind Umami 

The cultivated seafood producer starts by isolating a stem cell from a sample of fish tissue and then proceeds to grow these cells to evaluate their growth progress, what they like to eat and how best to mature them into muscle and fat. 

The team then sends these cells into a steel cultivation vessel and grows them from a few million cells into many tonnes of fish muscle and fat over the course of a few weeks using a semi-continuous production process. 

Following this, the mature muscle and fat is then harvested before feeding it into the product forming stage in which the team works with a range of technologies, including 3D printing to molding to other novel techniques to produce desirable, nutritious finished products.  

Tackling Food Security Concerns 

The recent pandemic had raised concerns on food security and stability of food supply as well as food imports across the region. Mihir believes that given this concern, technologies that can help to provide local contaminant free and predictable supplies of protein may be viewed more positively than they would have been pre-pandemic. 

The Chief Executive Officer also highlights that traditionally local climates and availability of freshwater and arable land significantly determine a country’s ability to be self-sufficient in feeding its population.  

“In a country like Singapore, for instance, limited arable land and freshwater resources make traditional agriculture very difficult. Cultivated meat and seafood production help to break this paradigm by enabling us to produce food local to where it needs to be consumed in a controlled environment that is less sensitive to local resource constraints,” he shares. 

“This technology has the potential to enable most countries to sustainably supply their people with meat and fish even if they have scarcity of freshwater arable land or other natural resources,” he adds.  

In addition to its role in contributing to the fight against climate change, Umami Meats believes that cultivated seafood has a range of benefits that will appeal to a range of consumers.  The cultivated seafood meat producers aim to produce fish that is free from heavy metals, microplastics and antibiotics yet still possess nutrition and flavour.  

“We can also avoid ecosystem damage and bycatch from industrial fishing practice, enabling consumers to access the fish they want while restoring and rewilding oceans,” Mihir says. 

Penetrating The Malaysian Market

The team behind UMAMI Meats are currently working with customers and partners, with the likes of Cell AgriTech in Malaysia to develop a consumer education strategy that will resonate with consumers. 

While the technology is still under development and the startup does not have any viable products in the market, the team hopes to move forward with consumer education initiatives that include information about sustainability and human health benefits of cultivated fish. 

“Our initial research has found that consumers across markets rank attributes like taste, price, healthiness and sustainability differently in terms of impact on purchasing decisions. For early markets, we will conduct deeper research to understand consumers in that long-term journey of educating consumers about cultivated production overall in addition to the particular benefits and impact of our model of production,” Mihir tells Disruptr.  

He further points out that Malaysia has a strong manufacturing industry, deep agricultural know how and a growing bio-manufacturing sector. This combination of knowledge base, talent and production costs, according to Mihir, positions Malaysia as a competitive market for cultivated production. 

In particular, he is of the opinion that the skilled workforce with experience in scaling up bio-manufacturing will be critical to helping the cultivated industry achieve its potential of producing enough food to support communities around the world.  

From Halal status perspective, Umami Meats and their local partner, Cell AgriTech, is working on developing a strategy for Halal certification. 

“We believe this is an important step to building consumer acceptance not only in Malaysia but for the 2 billion Muslim consumers worldwide who may look for Halal certification when making food choices,” Mihir says. 

Initial discussions according to the CEO have been quite positive about the pathway to achieving Halal certification, as seafood is typically considered Halal with only a few minor exceptions. 

In The Next 5 Years

Mihir also believes that new protein has a crucial role to play as part of a sustainable food system that will feed our population for the next century. He highlights that when wild catch fisheries first began to have supply challenges, aquaculture systems were developed to produce sufficient seafood to meet growing demand.  

“We are now in a position in which aquaculture and fisheries alone will not be able to keep up with demand, especially for endangered species that are challenging to farm.

“Our goal is to be the “Intel Inside” the seafood industry to allow the world’s largest seafood businesses to help us produce millions of tonnes of cultivated seafood that help us to overcome dwindling traditional supply, meet latent demand and achieve shared climate and sustainability goals,” Mihir tells Disruptr.  

Umami Meats intends to enable full supply chain traceability, localised production and access to stable, year-round supply without the volatility of traditional fisheries which means a more reliable, safe seafood supply with more stable pricing.  

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