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Above, fresh mahi mahi harvested from the sea. A handful of cell-based seafood companies are trying to create fresh fish species, including mahi mahi, in a lab – where they will be cultured headless , tail, skin or bone.

Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


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Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


Above, fresh mahi mahi harvested from the sea. A handful of cell-based seafood companies are trying to create fresh fish species, including mahi mahi, in a lab – where they will be cultured headless , tail, skin or bone.

Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

High-tech meat substitutes are all over the news these days. Last month, the Impossible Burger marked a meatless milestone with its debut as 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 market so-called cell-based seafood, c 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 world are home to 150,000 square foot facilities, each capable of producing enough cell-based seafood to meet the consumer demands of over 10 million residents. near.

But unlike Impossible Foods, BlueNalu doesn’t create a plant-based seafood alternative like Vegan Toona or Shrimp-Free Shrimp. Instead, Cooperhouse and his team extract value from a needle biopsy of muscle cells from a single fish, such as Patagonian toothfish, orange roughy and mahi-mahi.

These cells are then carefully cultured and nourished with an exclusive custom blend of liquid vitamins, amino acids and sugars. Eventually, the cells will grow into large sheets of whole muscle tissue that can be filleted and sold fresh, frozen, or packaged in other types of seafood entrees.

But unlike today’s wild or farmed fish options, BlueNalu’s seafood version will have no heads, tails, bones, or blood. It’s fish, just without the swimming and breathing part. It’s seafood without the sea.

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

“Consumers are changing. They’re looking at health. They’re focusing on the planet. It’s not a fad or a trend — it’s happening,” Cooperhouse said. “We will produce real seafood directly from fish cells.”

According to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on alternatives to animal protein, BlueNalu is one of a tiny handful of companies trying this. Globally, about two dozen companies are working on growing animal meat from cells, but most of them are interested in traditional livestock meats, such as beef, chicken and lamb. . Only six focus on cell-based seafood, and three of them are based in California: BlueNalu targets a variety of species, but especially those that cannot be easily farmed; Finless Foods primarily focuses on a bluefin tuna product; while the Wild Type team is working on cell-based salmon. All of them are probably five to ten years away from having an actual product on the market.

Few of these cell-based seafood companies are able to deliver great-tasting products at this point, says Jen Lamy, sustainable seafood initiative manager at the 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 prawns, served as traditional-looking shumai dumplings. (The rest of the audience just watched, hoping for a prawn-flavored puff.) Michael Selden, co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods, says they, too, are now at the stage where they have enough bluefin tuna farmed at from cells. for sampling.

According to Cooperhouse, BlueNalu does not seek to replace wild or farmed seafood, but aims to become a third alternative for seafood consumers. For vegans and vegetarians, it is a product that can cloud the tracks. After all, in the case of BlueNalu, cells need only be extracted from a fish once, not repeatedly, and the fish could theoretically be released. Grown without brains, organs, skin or any sensitivities, it’s a product that may appeal to those who would normally opt for plant-based protein and – unlike some companies developing cell-meat – Cooperhouse says BlueNalu doesn’t rely on serum. fetal bovine to feed fish cells.

Even so, the nascent cellular seafood industry is already putting its finger on some of the most sore spots of the traditional seafood industry: illegal fishing and overfishing, warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, well- being animal and problems related to food waste.

Cooperhouse notes that cell-based seafood is free of potential contaminants that can be found in their ocean-caught counterparts — like mercury, toxins, pathogens and parasites, and even “microparticles.” of plastic,” as the company’s website notes.

Similarly, Finless Foods’ website boasts that its product will require “no commercial fishing in our precious oceans. No fish farming. No contaminants.” And the Good Food Institute’s own 39-page report on cell-based seafood begins with several pages of dire warnings about pressing environmental threats and worrisome risks to seafood consumers — a lens through which the non-profit organization advocates for the growth of the cell-based seafood market.

This is a market positioning that is unlikely to suit the existing seafood industry.

“If you’re working on a breakthrough product in a lab and your hope is to feed the world a healthy protein, tell the people. There’s no need to scare people in your camp. The hyperbole doesn’t Transparency isn’t,” warns Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group. “Starting a marketing war won’t sell seafood . It’s not going to be a good way to go.”

The exact name of cell-based seafood is also up for grabs. A jumble of terms are already floating around: lab-grown seafood, cultured seafood, clean seafood, slaughter-free seafood. BlueNalu applied the term “cellular aquaculture” to the brand, but Cooperhouse says it’s unlikely to be endorsed, the company therefore modifies its application to allow the use of the term as a device mark instead. Finless Foods CEO Selden prefers the term “clean seafood,” but says his company currently defaults to the name used by the FDA: cell-based fish.

As for which government agency will regulate this new type of seafood? It’s still a bit fuzzy. Starting in March, it looks like cell-based fish will come under Food and Drug Administration oversight. But the specific details of what it will look like, how products will be labeled or how inspections will be structured have not yet settled.

Cooperhouse’s partner in BlueNalu, Chris Somogyi, is confident the products won’t end up hanging around the FDA for years like AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon did, in part because BlueNalu doesn’t use no genetic modification.

“We’re not using CRISPR technology. We’re not introducing new molecules into food. We’re not introducing a new entity that doesn’t exist in nature,” he says. “The approval will address safety, cleanliness and reliability and accountability of manufacturing processes.”

This part of the food industry is still so new that there is no trade association or lobby group to advocate for cell-based meat and seafood to lawmakers and the public. But Selden says companies in this sector are currently forming one.

“We’re working on its structure, but it’s a bit slow and doesn’t have a name yet,” Selden says.

Finding a way to feed the world with fresh, healthy and delicious seafood without harvesting depleted or depleted stocks from the ocean seems to go hand-in-hand with ocean-facing NGOs working on serious issues of illegal fishing and of 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 they are keeping a close eye on the emerging sector for now. And until there is an actual product available, Aaron A. McNevin, director of sustainable food for the WWF, says trying to make side-by-side comparisons would be impossible.

“Most alternative protein companies won’t share their intellectual property without nondisclosure agreements, which is understandable,” McNevin says. “For example, culturing cells can be energy-intensive. But we don’t know the magnitude of the energy needed to grow a specific alternative, and there is no equivalence between greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of wild fish caught.”

None of the ocean-related NGOs NPR spoke to said they were confident Cellular Seafood would deliver on its promise of reducing pressure on wild fish stocks. After all, the aquaculture side of the industry made similar claims decades ago, but it would be difficult, for example, to prove that farmed salmon relieved any pressure on wild salmon stocks. Instead, we just increased the overall consumption of salmon.

Tim Fitzgerald, director of impact for Environmental Defense Fund, says the group is also paying close attention to the rise of cell-based seafood. But he stressed that EDF’s efforts will remain focused on restoring wild fisheries – stocks on which, according to the UN, more than 3.2 billion people around the world depend for at least some of their protein.

But Cooperhouse insists there’s more than enough room in the world for all three – wild-caught, aquacultured and cell-cultured seafood.

“Catch, grow or manufacture, I’m not even sure we’ll be able to meet the demand,” he says.

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