Japan’s food tech companies find fresh ways to extend shelf life

Tuna wrapped in mold keeps for 20 days while dried veggies last two years.

Investors around the globe are hunting for companies that aim to solve the world’s food problems with technology, and corporate efforts to reduce food waste offer a juicy opportunity.

Solutions developed in Japan include the use of mold to keep tuna fresh, as well as a sheet made from dried vegetables that can remain edible for two years. Interest in food tech has spiked following the success of Beyond Meat, a U.S. company that makes patties and sausages from soybeans and other plant-based ingredients. The business listed on the Nasdaq in May and now trades at triple its initial closing price.

“Fish and shellfish that sushi restaurants used to throw away in one day can be used for about a week,” Mikio Atobe, president of Kawasaki-based Meat Epoch, told the Nikkei.

The secret is in an aging sheet laced with mold spores that are harmless to humans. This product triples the aging speed of food while blocking out bacteria that cause food to go bad.

Wrapped in the aging sheet, tuna can go 20 days without decaying.

“Not only does it prevent spoilage, it improves the taste,” said the head of a seafood wholesaler, speaking in front of a freezer containing bluefin tuna caught more than a week earlier. The Tokyo-based company wraps the fish in the aging sheets and lets them sit for about three weeks before delivering them to upscale supermarkets and restaurants.

Meat Epoch, which already sells the sheets for aging meat and fish, intends to offer them as a food-preservation product starting as early as this year.

Food tech has spread from meat to fish to vegetables. Isle, based in Nagasaki Prefecture, developed plant-based sheets using production technologies for nori, or dried seaweed sheets. Its Vegheet comes in five varieties, including carrots and spinach. The company has come up with more than 200 recipes, including rolls made by wrapping ingredients with Vegheet.

General merchandiser Ito-Yokado began selling Vegheet last year. Isle will double production next month to 30,000 sheets a day, and is testing 25 flavors.

“Many imperfect vegetables are thrown away,” Isle CEO Keisuke Soda said. “Producers will be able to increase their income if they use those for Vegheet.”

This industry involves more than extending the life of food to reduce waste. Integriculture looks to produce artificial meat, with an eye on the growing demand for food worldwide. The Tokyo-based company plans first to make foie gras by culturing the liver cells of geese.

“We aim to launch sales in the first half of the 2020s,” President Yuki Hanyu said.

Integriculture plans to begin joint research with major meatpacker NH Foods to lower production costs. They will combine the former’s proprietary cell-culturing system with the latter’s know-how on the production of meat products.

Outside Japan, upscale American supermarket chain Whole Foods Market began carrying Beyond Meat’s patties and other products in 2016. Beyond Meat’s business of offering an alternative source of protein looks promising to many investors amid a growing global population.

In April, U.S.-based Impossible Foods said that fast food chain Burger King will serve its plant-based patties.

Startups have sprouted worldwide on hopes for an expanding market. Israel-based Aleph Farms aims to commercialize cell-grown meat, and similar endeavors are taking place in the Netherlands.

“The number of food-tech-related venture capital firms in the U.S. has increased to more than 200,” said Hirotaka Tanaka at consulting firm Sigmaxyz.

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