Fish…without the Fish?

Fish…without the Fish?

Poised to make a big splash in cellular aquaculture, we speak to BlueNalu about the future of seafood

When Winston Churchill mused in 1931 on the absurdity of ‘growing a whole chicken in order to eat a breast or a wing’, he envisioned a world where we could grow just the part of the animal we needed, a part that would be ‘practically indistinguishable from the natural product’. 

And in the intervening decades, we’ve made real progress toward bringing that vision to life. 

The terminology varies – some prefer cultivated or cultured meat while others go with cell-based – but the basic principle is the same. I like the layman’s explanation Matt Simon from Wired used in an article about how to label this alternative protein: 

‘To make meat in a lab, scientists take cells from animals and encourage them to grow by feeding them nutrients, a lot like how the cells would naturally replicate in an animal’s body.’

Matt Simon, Wired

You may remember when, in August 2013, Professor Mark Post cooked and tasted the first cultivated meat burger made from around 20,000 muscle strands grown in a lab over three months. At the time, Mark commented that the presentation was ‘only a proof of concept that it’s not science fiction’. He is now the Chief Scientific Officer at Mosa Meat, which is getting closer to its goal of getting cultured beef out to market over the next three to four years. Memphis Meat is doing the same with chicken. 

And now BlueNalu, formed in Hawaii in 2017 and now based in San Diego, California, is using this innovative food technology in cellular aquaculture – growing individual fish fillets from fish cells. They see this alternative protein as a third option, running alongside wild-caught and farm-raised fish.

BlueNalu logo

Gerard Viverito, a chef and educator working with BlueNalu to develop the product, summarised the need for alternative proteins when I spoke to him recently: 

‘We’re running out of land. We have 7 billion people on the planet and we’re projected to go to 10 billion. Where do you fit them in? If we fit them on the existing land – because we’re not building more land – where do the animals go? So the animals become more of a commodity or a premium.

We can either go to the extreme of factories, where we just exploit the animals worse than we’re doing now – crank them out faster on hormones, antibiotics, all that other garbage – or we can eat fewer, but do a better job of it.’

Gerard Viverito, Chef

Cellular Aquaculture 101

Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of BlueNalu
Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of BlueNalu

According to Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of BlueNalu, ‘the fish we consume is only made up of three cell types: muscle cells, fat cells and connective tissue cells.’ A nice lean piece of cod, haddock or mahi-mahi has more muscle cells while the melt-in-your mouth feel of salmon, mackerel or Chilean sea bass has more fat cells. 

‘So what we do,’ Lou said, ‘is isolate these specific muscle cells, fat cells and connective tissue cells and find ways to grow those cells in enormous volumes. We’re feeding these cells some of the same fish feed that might be found in aquaculture – so amino acids, sugar, salt, vitamins, minerals, lipids. But we also need to do something supplemental to enable these cells to grow somewhat indefinitely.’

It’s important to note that while the cells are taken from live fish initially, the end product is simply the fish fillet. At no other point is there a sentient fish involved – no confined spaces, no unnatural lives, no slaughter. It’s the most humane way to produce seafood for human consumption. 

Animal welfare is very important to us. BlueNalu’s technology and production processes will make it possible to feed 100,000 people with 1 fish. We are still in R &D and optimising our cell collection process. In the few instances when we handle fish, our procedures are compliant with AWA and the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

We are proud of the fact that with our vision, millions of fish can remain in the ocean instead of being caught, once our manufacturing plants are operating. That also means less animals have to perish as bycatch.

Lou Cooperhouse, CEO

Normal muscles grow and divide, but reach a point where that growth stops. The key, Lou said, is ‘finding the tricks that keep the clues growing and dividing and not stopping. That’s what they mean by immortalising a cell – your’ stopping a natural tendency for a cell that wants to stop dividing.’

So these three types of fish cells are ‘put into stainless steel vats – just like you would find at your local microbrewery – and are bathed in a nutrient-rich feed solution’. Once sufficient volumes of these cells are reached, they are blended ‘either grown separately or combined in an intermediate step – that’s all some of our proprietary know-how – and then assembled into a final product’. 

Stainless steel vats
The fish cells will propagate in stainless steel vats, similar equipment that you would find in a brewery or winery. Roberta Keiko, Unsplash

Lou mentioned three assembly techniques they could use: layering – ‘like a lasagna’ – folded or even extruded (which I think of like pushing Play-doh through a mould). 

‘So the product actually looks on the plate – and they are genetically, functionally, nutritionally – the same as conventional fish that you might normally have. The only difference is that ours are consistent all the time, whereas today you might get Atlantic or Pacific, old or young. So we’re able to produce something that is consistently outstanding quality.’ 

This last point is hugely important for chefs. 

‘From a business perspective,’ Gerard told me, ‘if I buy a 10-pound bass, I’m probably only going get five to six pounds of meat out of it. What do I do with the other 5 pounds? I paid for it – maybe I could make soup with it, maybe I could scrape the bones, maybe I could do something – but my mind in this day and age goes to…”Oh my god, that was an extra five pounds that was put on a truck and shipped, and it’s one out of 1000 fish of 5000 pounds of fish. How much more extra fuel, how much more carbon is this? Oh my god, the ozone layer… we’re all gonna die!” But now if I only need six pounds of fish I can buy six pounds and it’s 100% yield. There’s no more waste.’

An agricultural awakening 

Unlike some of the food tech start-ups whose founders are more tech than food, Lou has spent over 35 years in the food industry. 

After studying microbiology and food science at university, Lou got a job at Campbell’s Soup working on perishable foods – ‘entrees, soups, salads, desserts, sauces and produce’ he listed for me. ‘Raw and cooked products typically founded the perimeter of the store. Where the high value products can be seen.’ 

After that he took a job at ConAgra, ‘one of the largest processed meat companies, and I was responsible for the all the R&D for the division doing everything from chicken nuggets to patties to corndogs’.

Even for someone so involved in the food industry, he was removed from the origins of the protein he was working with. ‘The raw materials we were seeing was in boxes,’ he said. ‘We were literally getting boxed beef in, fresh and frozen meats, and it was what it was. I didn’t really think about what preceded that event.’

Lou told me about two events, in the early 2000s, that served as an awakening of sorts that would change the course of his career.

He served as the executive director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, ‘an incubator helping startups attract foreign investment’, and travelled the world consulting with emerging food tech entrepreneurs. One of his clients was Impossible Foods – the makers of the Impossible Burger. 

‘I had the tremendous opportunity to be part of that birth of the company,’ Lou said. ‘All the engineering and all the equipment installation, all the training of individuals, was under my watch…I became increasing fascinated by alternative protein. The industry was changing under my eyes.’ 

And around the same time he visited a slaughter house for the first time. ‘It was quite graphic,’ he said. ‘That was something that was clearly impactful.’ 

He said to himself that there had to be a better way. 

From Hawaii, with love: BlueNalu

Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

‘Our company was born like all companies should be,’ he said. By asking two questions: ‘what is a really important niche that one can fill?’ And ‘how does one accomplish it?’

As a mentor to other other startups, he regularly gave them advice on ‘having competitive insulation, having a niche, meeting a global demand for something that’s really specialised’. Looking at the other companies in the cultivated meat space, ’I found myself saying the category that nobody has really gone after deeply is seafood’. 

Nalu is a Hawaiian word, used most often when referring to ocean waves or surf. It’s also a verb meaning to meditate, ponder and contemplate. When used in the street slang phase ’Nalu it’, it means to go with the flow, but mindfully. 

Shortly after forming, the company ‘raised four and a half million dollars in an earlier seed round’. Lou told me that at the time it ‘was the largest seed round in the whole category’. They’ve recently raised ‘$20 million in the Series A round of funding, which is also – we believe – the largest Series A round in this entire category. We did it in a very rapid amount of time.’

With investors from 11 different nations across Asia, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East, Lou says the reason he believes the company is so attractive to investors is ‘because we really are looking at this very holistically and very globally’. 

‘Our company was founded on proof of scale. We said, we’re not here to do a scientific experiment.

We are a food-centric company that is saying how does the biology work, how does the operations work, how does the engineering work, how does the regulatory work, how does the market work, how do we accomplish this with partners and how do we really see this as a global opportunity.’

Lou Cooperhouse, CEO

Lou’s vision is for BlueNalu to go beyond niche player and be ‘a supply chain solution with the platform technology that crosses a broad array of species’. 

While the ambition is to have, in Gerard’s phrase, a library of fish cells to meet the local needs and tastes, BlueNalu is starting with three species that Lou calls ‘commercially active’ – mahi-mahi, red snapper and yellowtail amberjack – and they’ve done some work with tuna. 

Scaling(!) up

In December 2019, BlueNalu hosted an event to demonstrate what Lou termed ‘product functionality – showing that the product could perform in in the heated state’. We typically eat fish in one of three states: heated or cooked in a number of variations, acidified in a marinade like a ceviche or in the raw state. Gerard demonstrated the yellowtail amberjack in all three states. 

BlueNalu's product demonstration of yellowtail amberjack
BlueNalu’s product demonstration of yellowtail amberjack

’As opposed to the other companies out there, this is the only [product] that hasn’t disintegrated,’ he said. ‘The consistencies is there, the texture is coming along and it’s really fascinating. It smells just like it.’

‘We have a five-phase growth strategy,’ Lou said. ‘And that’s really our phase one – able to demonstrate that [cooking] can be accomplished. Next in line is really allowing ourselves to scale up to larger volumes. Our phase three situation is one in which we are more or less at 2,000 litre capacity, which is enough to actually produce several hundred pounds of product per week.’

Ultimately, the plan is to have a 150,000 square foot factory that can deliver 72 million 4-ounce portions of fish annually. Once achieved, they can dot these factories around the world, tailoring the product to local preferences, creating local jobs, shortening the supply chain, stabilising costs and reducing the pressure on the oceans and fish farms.

For me, this is the most exciting potential that BlueNalu has. Once this blueprint exists, it can be replicated at scale in the parts of the world that need it most, truly making a dent in global hunger. 

‘The long-term opportunity is just tremendous,’ Lou told me. ‘We absolutely see ourselves being demand-driven, putting these factories close to where the population centre needs seafood – where we can be, in fact, a new definition of local.’ 

I’ll take a fish, hold the toxins…

Running through both conversations with Lou and Gerard, the health benefits of cultivated meat and cellular aquaculture kept coming up. 

While eating fish can contribute to better heart health and supports growth and development, there are also known risks with eating fish:

  • Leftover toxins from heavy use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) prior to the 1980s have been linked to cancer, infertility, learning disabilities and negative effects on the immune, nervous and endocrine systems.
  • Scombrotoxin can cause burning sensations in the mouth and throat, nausea, headache, facial rash, blurred vision and respiratory stress.
  • And with marine plastic pollution – especially microplastics – entering the food stream and making its way to us, a cleaner way of producing fish is welcome news.

‘[BlueNalu] doesn’t have microplastics,’ Lou said. ’It doesn’t have environmental pollutants. It doesn’t have any toxins or potential parasites or pathogens and, very importantly, it doesn’t contain mercury. So it has all the positives of seafood, without any of the potential negatives.’

The current fish cells BlueNalu are working with were ‘all isolated from a controlled aquaculture programme and have none of the contaminates.’ While the cells of fish caught in the wild may have trace contaminates, BlueNalu says it’s not likely to end up in the final product. They select the healthiest cells and the nutrient-rich solution the cells are bathed in will likely wash away any traces. And with thousands of tonnes of product made from just a few starting cells, the ‘dilution factor is in the billions’.

Gerard agreed. ‘From a chef’s perspective…It’s an unnerving feeling that, someone could walk into my restaurant on a Friday night, and I can make it the most special night of their lives or, technically, I could kill them.’ 

He related the story of a friend who is pregnant and excited by the prospect of being able to eat fish without fear of mercury poisoning for her child. ‘Knowing that I can open [fish] up to a wider audience again, or at least feel better about the audience that is eating my food, I’m providing a safer food medium for them. That’s pretty incredible.’

’That’s why we describe our product as healthy for people, humane for sealife and sustainable for our planet,’ Lou said. 

In the first article of this series I asked a few big questions that players in the cultivated meat space would need to consider, one of them about science crossing the line into creation.

Lou said the company hasn’t encountered any ethical pushback or accusations of playing god.

‘This may be because we do not create any new life. We simply isolate existing cells and grow more of those cells without any modifications. This is not different from growing yeast for bread and beer or growing yogurt cultures. In all these cases living cells are provided with nutrients and the right conditions for proliferation and growth.’

Lou Cooperhouse

I’m certainly intrigued and will be watching their progress over the next few years as they bring their product to market. 

In the next article of this series, we look at whether diners are ready for the shift and BlueNalu’s aspiration to reconnect us with our food in more meaningful ways.