Seafood Without The Sea: Will Lab-Grown Fish Hook Consumers?

Above, fresh mahi mahi harvested from the sea. A handful of cell-based seafood companies are attempting to create fresh fish species, including mahi mahi, in a lab — where they will be grown without a head, tail, skin or bones.
Above, fresh mahi mahi harvested from the sea. A handful of cell-based seafood companies are attempting to create fresh fish species, including mahi mahi, in a lab — where they will be grown without a head, tail, skin or bones.
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

High-tech meat alternatives are grabbing a lot of headlines these days. Last month, the Impossible Burger marked a meatless milestone with its debut as a Burger King Whopper. Meanwhile, Lou Cooperhouse was in a San Diego office park quietly forging plans to disrupt another more fragmented and opaque sector of the food industry: seafood.

His company, BlueNalu (a play on a Hawaiian term that means both ocean waves and mindfulness), is racing to bring to market what's known as cell-based seafood --- that is, seafood grown from cells in a lab, not harvested from the oceans.

BlueNalu is aiming for serious scalability — a future where cities around the globe will be home to 150,000-square-foot facilities, each able to produce enough cell-based seafood to meet the consumption demands of more than 10 million nearby residents.

But unlike Impossible Foods, BlueNalu is not creating a plant-based seafood alternative like vegan Toona or shrimpless shrimp. Instead, Cooperhouse and his team are extracting a needle biopsy's worth of muscle cells from a single fish, such as a Patagonian toothfish, orange roughy and mahi-mahi.

Those cells are then carefully cultivated and fed a proprietary custom blend of liquid vitamins, amino acids and sugars. Eventually, the cells will grow into broad sheets of whole muscle tissue that can be cut into filets and sold fresh, frozen or packaged into other types of seafood entrees.

But unlike today's wild-caught or farmed fish options, BlueNalu's version of seafood will have no head, no tail, no bones, no blood. It's finfish, just without the swimming and breathing part. It's seafood without the sea.

The idea was compelling enough to prompt 58-year-old Cooperhouse to to abandon his lucrative consulting business and role as the executive director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, where he assisted scores of other start-ups (including Impossible Foods). In 2017, he formed a partnership with entrepreneurs Chris Somogyi and Chris Dammann, and together the team scored $4.5 million in seed funding.

"Consumers are changing. They're looking at health. They're focused on the planet. This is not a fad or a trend — this is happening," says Cooperhouse. "We will produce real seafood products directly from fish cells."

According to the Good Food Institute, a non-profit focused on animal-protein alternatives, BlueNalu is among a tiny handful of companies attempting this. Globally, there are roughly two dozen companies working on growing animal meat from cells, but most of them are looking at traditional livestock meats, like beef, chicken and lamb. Only six are focused on cell-based seafood, and three of them are based in California: BlueNalu is setting its sights on a variety of species, but especially those that cannot be easily farmed; Finless Foods is primarily focused on a bluefin tuna product; while the team at Wild Type is working on cell-based salmon. All are likely five to 10 years away from having actual product on the market.

Few of these cell-based seafood companies are able to offer tasteable products at this point, says Jen Lamy, sustainable seafood initiative manager with Good Food Institute. Indeed, at last month's Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit in Singapore, only three people were able to sample Shiok Meat's lab-grown shrimp, served in the form of traditional-looking shumai dumplings. (The rest of the audience only looked on, hoping for a shrimp-scented whiff.) Michael Selden, co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods, says they, too, are now at the stage where they have enough cell-grown bluefin tuna for sampling.

Cooperhouse says BlueNalu is not looking to replace wild-caught or farm-raised seafood, but is aiming to become a third alternative for seafood eaters. For vegans and vegetarians, it's a product that may blur the line. After all, in the case of BlueNalu, cells only need to be drawn from a fish once, not repeatedly, and the fish could theoretically be returned to the water. Grown without brains, organs, skin or any sentience, it's a product that may appeal to those who would normally opt for plant-based protein and — unlike some companies developing cellular meat — Cooperhouse says BlueNalu does not rely on fetal bovine serum to feed fish cells.

Even so, the fledgling cellular seafood industry is already poking a finger into the traditional seafood industry's most tender spots: illegal fishing and overfishing, warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, animal welfare and issues surrounding food waste.

Cooperhouse notes that cell-based seafood is free from potential contaminants that can be found in its ocean-caught counterparts — like mercury, toxins, pathogens and parasites, and even "micro-particles of plastics," as the company's website notes.

Likewise, Finless Foods' website boasts that its product will require "no commercial fishing from our precious oceans. No fish farming. No contaminants." And Good Food Institute's own 39-page cell-based seafood report begins with several pages of dire warnings of pressing environmental threats and worrisome risks to seafood-eaters — a lens through which the nonprofit make its case for growing the cell-based seafood market.

It's a market positioning that likely will not sit with the existing seafood industry.

"If you're working on a revolutionary product in a lab, and your hope is to feed the world a healthy protein, tell people that. There's no need to scare people into your camp. Hyperbole is not transparency," warns Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group. "Starting a marketing war will not sell seafood products. That will not be a successful road to go down."

Exactly what cell-based seafood will ultimately be called is also still up for grabs. A jumble of terms are already being floated: Lab-grown seafood, cultured seafood, clean seafood, slaughter-free seafood. BlueNalu applied to trademark the term "cellular aquaculture," but Cooperhouse says it's unlikely to be approved, so the company is modifying its application to allow the term for use as a design mark instead. Finless Foods CEO Selden prefers the phrase "clean seafood" but says for now, his company is defaulting to the name the FDA uses: cell-based fish.

As for which government agency will regulate this new type of seafood? That's still somewhat murky. As of March, it appears that cell-based fish will fall within the Food and Drug Administration's oversight. But the specific details of what that will look like, how the products are to be labeled, or how inspections will be structured have not been sorted out yet.

Cooperhouse's partner in BlueNalu, Chris Somogyi, is confident the products won't end up languishing within the FDA for years, the way AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon did — in part because BlueNalu is not using any genetic modification.

"We aren't using CRISPR technology. We aren't introducing new molecules into the diet. We're not introducing a new entity that doesn't exist in nature," he says. "The approval will be about whether this is safe, clean and are the manufacturing processes reliable and accountable."

This part of the food industry is still so new that there's no existing trade association or lobbying group to champion cell-based meat and seafood with lawmakers and the public. But Selden says the companies within this sector are currently in the process of forming one.

"We're working on the structure of it, but it's a bit slow and doesn't have a name yet," says Selden.

Finding a way to feed the world fresh, healthy and delicious seafood without harvesting the ocean's maxed-out or depleted stocks would seem to dovetail with ocean-facing NGOs that are working on serious issues of illegal fishing and habitat destruction. But so far, these groups are still lukewarm on cell-based fish.

Most, including Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, Ocean Foundation, WWF, Greenpeace and others say that for now, they're just keeping a close eye on the emerging sector. And until there's actual product available, Aaron A. McNevin, director of sustainable food for WWF, says trying to make side-by-side comparisons would be impossible.

"Most alternative protein companies won't share their intellectual property without non-disclosure agreements, which is understandable," says McNevin. "For example, cell culturing can be energy intensive. But we do not know the magnitude of energy it takes to culture a specific alternative, and there's no equivalency for greenhouse gas emissions vs. an amount of wild fish captured."

None of the ocean-related NGOs that NPR spoke with say they feel confident that cell-based seafood will live up to promises about reducing pressure on wild fish stocks. After all, the aquaculture side of the industry offered similar claims decades ago, but it would be difficult, for example, to prove that farm-raised salmon relieved any pressure on wild salmon stocks. Instead, we've just increased overall salmon consumption.

Tim Fitzgerald, director of impact for Environmental Defense Fund, says the group is also paying close attention to the advent of cell-based seafood. But he emphasized that EDF's efforts will remain focused on the recovery of wild fisheries — stocks that the U.N. says more than 3.2 billion people globally depend upon for at least a portion of their protein.

But Cooperhouse insists there's more than enough room globally for all three — wild caught, aquaculture and cell-grown seafoods.

"Catch, grow or make it, I'm not even sure we'll be able to meet demand," he says.

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