This article is based on an episode of the Red to Green podcast on food tech for sustainability and health. The first season covered cell-based meat, dairy and seafood. Listen to this and past episodes on Spotify, iTunes and other platforms.
When we pollute the oceans we also pollute our food supply: did you know that all fish contain small amounts of the most toxic form of mercury, Methylmercury (MeHg)? If that wasn’t enough, increasingly more microplastics are found in seafood. Microplastics may release absorbed pollutants and chemical additives causing hormone disruption, cancer risks and DNA damage. Find out how cell-based fish could be a safer alternative in today’s post with BlueNalu CEO, Lou Cooperhouse. Fun fact about Lou: he has over 35 years experience in the food industry and has advised and helped launch a number of food startups throughout his career, including leading a team of food scientists and chefs that developed the first line of gluten-free products worldwide, completed in the late 1990’s. This is an episode you don’t want to miss!
BlueNalu’s mission is to be the global leader in cellular aquaculture, providing consumers with great tasting, healthy and trusted cell-based seafood products that support the sustainability and biodiversity of our oceans. Compared to the current media coverage that cell-based meat is getting, alternative seafood remains relatively under the radar and it’s founder Lou´s mission to change this. He says that one advantage of cell-based fish is that it can be created anytime, anywhere unlike “real” fish that is mainly seasonal. It’s BlueNalu’s mission to fulfill this consumer pain point and launch their fish right when the conventional supply runs out.
“I’ve always been fascinated by startups..really creating a business from the ground-up”.
After becoming especially fascinated with the opportunities that alternative meats presented, Lou recognized a white space in the cell-based arena and a “huge opportunity to make a difference for consumers worldwide and create a more sustainable supply chain for our future.”
60-90% of the seafood we consume is imported
BlueNalu was essentially created as a “third leg” in the supply chain with the aim to “create a more sustainable and consistent supply chain to feed the world in the future.” Lou and his team wanted to develop a healthy and safe product for consumers as well as something that was good for the planet and for wildlife to help preserve the viable ecosystem we need to survive as a planet. He believes that the existing seafood supply chain is the most vulnerable across the world, as most other animals and protein sources are easily controllable. Did you know that 60-90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported? Lou explained that 10-30% of fish are thrown back into the ocean, and those that aren’t, travel miles in air-freight containers and other means of long-distance transport only to end up experiencing 60% or less yields in restaurants.
“The demand for seafood is at an all-time high..people love seafood around the world but our supply is increasingly challenged.. and (we) really can’t keep up with the demand.”
Along with demand for seafood, consumer awareness of micro-plastics, environmental pollutants, and sustainability issues is increasing. This creates a social responsibility for companies to feed this demand while being more environmentally-friendly. Lou adds that there are also “challenges that are totally out of our control” including climate change and warming oceans and he believes that as a planet it’s time we did something to create sustainable solutions for the consumer.
Demand and supply – not supply and demand
“We are a year/year and a half away from having our product in commerce.”
Lou believes that the benefits of cell-based fish are obvious; for one it does not contain any mercury or environmental contaminants, it boasts a 100% yield and doesn’t require any trimming at food service level. So the question is; why haven’t we seen it more on the market?
“No matter the way you look at it it’s just an enormous amount of positives”.
Lou explains that the young company is hoping to cause a “paradigm shift” when it comes to supply and demand by redefining local. Their future plan is to build factories of sustainable fish that are driven by demand, not supply, that avoid long distances and help prevent losses in order to provide year-round, sustainable seafood to consumers.
Creating a library of fish species on demand
Blue Nalu is “driven by what’s most important to consumers: taste”.
Even though Lou reminds us that consumers might be driven by other characteristics like sustainability and innovation, the main factor that foodies look for is taste.
BlueNalu seems to be doing it right as they work with expert chefs, investors, and companies from around the world to demonstrate that their product has exactly the same characteristics as conventional meat. It smells the same, browns the same, and has the same texture; all of the sensory attributes you would look for with “real” seafood. “We are quite excited at delivering a product that is in every attribute the same as conventional fish.”
They are doing what Lou calls “creating a library of cell lines available to be produced on demand” (including consumer favorites like tuna, yellow-tail and red-snapper) making seafood that people are familiar with and others which they aren’t.
The best part? If species become endangered or affected in any way by an environmental disaster or climate change out of the industry’s hands, they can be replaced by other species. That’s what Lou says is the “beauty of the startup” as they are no longer limited by their supply.
“The idea is to supplement the global seafood demand” to ensure there are more fish in the ocean and to bring back species being affected by climate change and overfishing. Additionally, cellular aquaculture enables sustainable production of species that are difficult to farm-raise or are typically imported – offering fish no longer available to consumers.
Filling the white space for cell-based fish species
When the startup began their operations back in June 2018, there were essentially no fish muscle cell lines available worldwide and they basically started from scratch in terms of research. Despite there being significant knowledge and science already done in mammalian cells there had been little done in terms of fish species and those that had previously tried to culture fish cells had failed.
On a more positive note – thanks to this exact white space we now have Blue Nalu; a company on a mission to create the exact seafood species we were missing. “we were very fortunate to have been able to accomplish that over the first 3 to 6 months of our operation” The startup has been able to continue this work and go from one species to the next, creating innovative cell-based seafood for the masses.
The good thing about BlueNalu is the range of species they are able to create. Their whole mission is to really develop – what Lou calls “platform technology” – a technology that will enable them to develop any kind of living or dead fish, whether it be fresh or salt water, Atlantic or Pacific, or long living or short living. For Blue Nalu there are no limits. “We are very excited to have been able to really develop this platform technology across a broad array of fin fish”.
Next Lou explains that him and his team want to spread the consumption of less “traditional” fish species and evolve with new applications and developments, including applying more nutritional benefits to already existing fish like increased levels of omega 3s, 6s and future health enhancements.
Working on a 2021 test market launch
For those of you who aren’t food scientists, the whole process from which BlueNalu´s product is developed may seem rather perplexing at first. Even from the beginning their whole vision has been focused almost entirely on proof of concept to develop a globally accepted technology to help maximize consumer adoption of cell-based fish as well as to change the consumers idea of the industry.
Their process is based around large scale production in a stainless steel tap, similar to beer brewing but in bioreactors. In simpler terms, the muscle cells are bathed in nutrient rich media including aquaculture feed with amino acids, salts and sugars where the cells propagate in large volumes and are then assembled collecting even more cells to create the final product.
So, when can we see BlueNalu’s products on our shelves? Lou says that they are optimistic about a late 2021 test market launch, depending on whether their FDA approval comes through and if they are fiscally able to produce and roll out their whole portfolio including 200-500 pounds of cell-based fish a week.
Lou explains that within the next three to five years they plan to have BlueNalu products in large scale retail operations, which is much sooner than we ever expected from the cell-based seafood industry.
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