Fish…Without the Fish? How BlueNalu Is Changing Seafood

Fish…Without the Fish? How BlueNalu Is Changing Seafood

Cellular aquaculture brand BlueNalu is poised to make a big splash in 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’. 

Nearly 100 years later we’ve made real progress toward bringing that vision to life. 

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, the presentation was ‘only a proof of concept’. But Post is now the Chief Scientific Officer at Mosa Meat, which is getting closer to its goal of getting cultured beef out to market. Memphis Meat is doing the same with chicken. 

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

Gerard Viverito, a chef and educator working with BlueNalu to develop the product, summarised the need for alternative proteins.

‘We’re running out of land. We have 7 billion people on the planet and we’re projected to go to 10 billion,’ he told me. ‘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.’

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

What Is Cellular Aquaculture?

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

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,’ Copperhouse 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, says Cooperhouse. ‘BlueNalu’s technology and production processes will make it possible to feed 100,000 people with 1 fish.’

Normal muscles grow and divide, but reach a point where that growth stops. The key, Cooperhouse 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.’

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

Brewed Like Beer?

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’. 

Cooperhouse 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 

Cooperhouse has spent over 35 years in the food industry. 

After studying microbiology and food science at university, Cooperhouse got a job at Campbell’s Soup working on perishable foods – ‘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, where he helmed R&D for everything from chicken nuggets to corn dogs.

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.’

Two events in the early 2000s 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,’ Cooperhouse 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. 

Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

How BlueNalu Is Redefining Aquaculture

‘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’. Cooperhouse 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, Cooperhouse 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’. 

Proof of Scale

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

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.’

Cooperhouse’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 Cooperhouse calls ‘commercially active’ – mahi-mahi, red snapper and yellowtail amberjack – and they’ve done some work with tuna. 

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

Scaling(!) Up

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

’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,’ Cooperhouse 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.’

The plan is to have a 150,000 square foot factory that can deliver 72 million 4-ounce portions of fish annually. They can replicate these factories around the world, tailoring the product to local preferences. This model creates jobs, shortens the supply chain, and stabilises costs. But its most notable benefit may be in reducing the pressure on the oceans and fish farms.

‘The long-term opportunity is just tremendous,’ Cooperhouse 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.’ 

Fish Risks

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

  • Leftover toxins from heavy use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) 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.
  • Marine plastic pollution – especially microplastics – enter the food stream and making their way to humans. They pose numerous health risks including endocrine disruption.

Building a Better Fish

‘[BlueNalu] doesn’t have microplastics,’ Cooperhouse 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 fish cells BlueNalu works with were ‘all isolated from a controlled aquaculture programme and have none of the contaminants.’ While the cells of fish caught in the wild may have traces of contaminants, BlueNalu says they’re 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 pregnant friend who is excited by the prospect of being able to eat fish without fear of mercury poisoning for her unborn 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,’ Cooperhouse said. 

The Ethics of Cell-Based Food

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.

Cooperhouse 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.’

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.