In this three-part series, we’ve looked at the problems with wild-caught and farm-raised fish as part of feeding a global population of 10 million by 2050. We’ve also introduced you to BlueNalu – an American startup using innovative food technology to create cellular aquaculture – or fish without the fish.
On top of the big questions this topic raised for me (see the end of the first article), there is a more urgent one BlueNalu needs to answer: Are we, as diners, ready for it?
A changing landscape
Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of BlueNalu, certainly thinks so. Until recently, modern consumers haven’t paid much attention to where our food came from or how it got onto our plates. But that’s changed over the past 10-20 years.
‘I saw earlier in my career that people thought about [things like] convenience and taste and quality – things that are a little bit more self-serving, if you will,’ Lou told me. ‘Now they’re more focused on sustainability.’
He credits brands like Starbucks and their commitment to Fair Trade coffee for helping reconnect people to the story behind their food. ‘People want to know that the coffee beans that they are using in their coffee were produced in the way that they consider proper: grown in the right way, under the right conditions. Who actually pick these beans, how was it produced?’
We’re all asking more questions and reading food labels with more intention, signalling our values through what we buy and the brands we support. But the story is only the promise. The product still has to deliver.
‘Having a long career in the food industry, I’ve learned two things,’ Lou said. ‘You have to sell the customer twice: the first time is in the perception; it’s the story that makes you want to try it. But the second time you buy is all about the taste. I’ve learned this over and over again – the most powerful criteria for repeat purchase is taste.’
I wondered, given the current pandemic sweeping the globe, if people would be drawn to the idea of clean protein produced in a sterile environment, removed from the messiness of ‘the world out there’. Both Lou and Gerard Viverito, the chef helping BlueNalu on product development, thought it possible.
‘I think it’s going to be a good side effect, for lack of a better word,’ Gerard told me. ‘It’s weird because we’ve gone through avian flu, swine flu, hoof-and-mouth disease – pick one. They all trace back to animals, but I don’t think it’s ever made people think about [the link with food] before. I’m hypothesising, but maybe the fact that there are cell-based meat organisations now, people are seeing the connection.’
This skirts one of the big questions I raised in the first article of this series: whether we sever an essential connection by removing nutrition from nature.
If our food is made in the lab, will we still feel as responsible for a give-and-take relationship to keep our food supplies clean and bountiful? Lou was quite clear on this point.
‘I believe that consuming animal products that were made sustainably via cell-based methods, without harming animals actually creates a stronger connection to nature. People that eat cell-based products will know that they did something against the depletion of our oceans: you can have your fish on the plate and in the ocean at the same time.
Applying the knowledge of making the food we like and want without destroying habitats and entire species shows that we, as a society, care about nature. I think that most consumers will feel great about the fact that their food, which tastes and looks just as they know it, did not require the death of millions of animals.
Introducing cell-based products doesn’t mean at all that we remove nutrition from nature. It means that we generate nutrition from nature without destroying it in the process.’Lou Cooperhouse, CEO
Going to market
Lou’s plan to take BlueNalu to market is through the food service industry rather than going direct-to-consumers. Initial conversations with iconic seafood restaurants have been incredibly positive.
‘The response has been beyond enthusiastic,’ he said. ‘Many chefs are very creative, and they’re very excited to have something new on the menu. This even offers a bit of a halo effect for the entire restaurant environment, especially being one of the first restauranteurs to bring this to market as we go from region to region.’
There will always be early adopters when a new product comes out – they get a thrill from being among the first to try something new. They’re often younger and live in urban areas, but with the benefits of being a clean product, humane to sealife and sustainable for the planet, Lou believes there will be broad appeal.
Gerard agrees that introducing the product through restaurants provides chefs the opportunity to tell the story behind it.
‘We all love stories, he said. ‘We are starved for entertainment and food should be entertaining. If you can educate your customers and get them excited, get them hooked, they’ll come back. They’ll say “What can you serve me next? You served me this. I’d never heard about it. Teach me something new”.’Gerard Viverito, Chef
Healing the planet
Going to market through restaurants also provides the opportunity for chefs to change the direction of the food landscape around the world.
‘One thing that I tell everyone that I’ve ever taught or consulted for is that chefs really are the stewards of the planet,’ Gerard told me. ‘The ultimate chef feeds people what they want to eat, not what they want to make, but we still have tremendous purchasing power.’
He talked about how he has seen seafood trends play out in America. ‘There was a period when everyone had swordfish on the menu, and then Chilean sea bass and then, I don’t know, wild salmon and then it’s this shrimp and it’s that lobster…we’re putting a lot of pressure on these stocks.’ Chefs need to help diversify what’s on offer and BlueNalu is able to support those efforts.
One of the fish he’s excited to work with again is red snapper, which has become commercially endangered because it’s by-catch of the shrimp industry. ‘One of the really amazing things we’re doing at BlueNalu, we’re actually able to bring this fish back…we can recreate the bio-diversity of the ocean. I think we have the potential to heal the earth.’
He chuckled as he said that, aware of how grandiose it sounded, but it was an authentic statement.
This strategy does raise a question for me though. Is this perpetuating the two-tiered food system already playing out between those who have and those who have not?
Rather than create a high-end aspirational product that will be enjoyed in iconic seafood restaurants first and then wait for the demand to trickle down via social media feeds to the masses, wouldn’t it be more impactful for the planet to aim for the mass market in the first instance?
Would BlueNalu deliver on their mission to feed the planet and sustain the oceans better by skipping the difficult technical work of creating the perfect fillet and instead focus on flaked protein that can easily be formed into fish fingers, goujons, fish cakes and the like that could enter millions of homes quickly through ready meals or frozen food?
When I put this question to Lou, he said that the company was initially looking at fine dining as a category for launch, where some of the greatest seafood demand is forecast for the decades ahead. That is typically served as a fillet or a medallion.
‘As a company, BlueNalu is also focused on the seafood fillets and medallions category as these product forms can only be manufactured with our cell-based technology, and represent an enormous and growing global business.
We are much less interested in the flaked product seafood category (fish cakes and the like) as these products can potentially be manufactured using plant-based alternatives, as well as surimi and other alternatives.’Lou Cooperhouse, CEO
Food as community
As a child growing up in a large Italian immigrant family, Gerard told me how he spent weekends shuttled between grandmothers’ houses, learning how to cook food that was grown in their backyards. ‘It was always one grandmother’s house on one day, the other grandmother’s house on another day. And it was 20-30 people around the dinner table…sharing a meal, sharing stories.’
He would also ’work with the gals on the street or at holidays, baking cookies and cakes. I always felt this deep connection, because every time I worked with food it was always with people. And I could form the social connection, this heart-to-heart connection.’
He believes that the greater connection we have with our food, the better off we’ll be.
‘If we have a sense of where something comes from, and we have a little bit of guilt about it, maybe we’ll think twice about overeating it, over using it, exploiting it. Or at the very least learning an appreciation for it.
And I think with this whole alternative protein movement, if it’s gonna do anything in my mind, it’s gonna teach people an appreciation for their food.’Gerard Viverito, Chef
Another unintended consequence of the coronavirus may be a greater appreciation of community and sitting down to a meal together – whether in your home or out at a restaurant when they re-open.
‘So many people are just eating for sustenance, for lack of a better word,’ he said. He told me that he can’t drive down the street without seeing someone eating takeaway out of a paper bag. ‘I read the average Taco Bell meal is consumed in 70 seconds…it takes me longer to set the table! But people just tilt the bag up and eat it. If that’s your idea of eating, then you lose a sense of community. Without connecting with people, we’re missing something, and when we miss something, I think it makes us bitter.’
Whether we’re eating cell-based fish or not, it’s a sentiment I think most of us would agree with.
So are you in?
From the problems with the current fishing industry to the potential from companies like BlueNalu to restore the planet and the power of food to connect us, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this series.
For many people the idea of eating alternative protein – swapping plant-based for animal-based, for example – is gaining acceptance and momentum.
There may still be some resistance in people’s psyche about cell-based meat, but certainly on paper, it looks like it ticks quite a few of the boxes.
‘The fact that we can possibly help eradicate hunger,’ Gerard said, ‘provide a clean source of protein to the world that didn’t exist, feed a swelling population and have no environmental contaminates…Aside from people saying “it’s lab-based, that’s weird” – what else could someone say negative about it? “How dare you create a clean protein…” or “How dare you try to save the oceans…”? It’s got that feel good story, and I’m not doing it for the feel good part, but that’s a by-product of everything. It’s the icing on the cake.’