While working in food innovation for 35 years, Lou Cooperhouse witnessed firsthand a revolution in consumer taste – a shift towards eating food that was as healthy for the planet as for the consumer. “People expressing the difference they can make, one burger at a time,” as he puts it.
Though he followed plant-based foods closely, he was particularly captivated by cell-based technology, which promised to make an animal product without the animal, growing actual meat from cells rather than approximating it with the vegan imitations so prevalent on supermarket shelves.
He coupled this insight with another observation: that a change in preference towards healthier food was pushing people away from red meat and towards seafood. From 1961 to 2015, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, global fish consumption grew from 9kg to 20.2kg per capita; this consumption is expected to increase precipitously into the 2030s. But the world cannot produce fish at the pace we eat it. Populations of marine species have halved since 1970, due to overfishing and climate change, and microplastics and mercury contaminate the fish in our oceans.
Cooperhouse wanted to catch both of these waves, and co-founded BlueNalu in San Diego in 2017, to produce cell-based seafood.
The company calls its process cellular aquaculture. Cells are extracted from the tissue of fish and placed in a kind of microbrewery: large stainless steel vessels where a nutrient bath grows them into fish fillets. This process is incredibly precise. “For a pretty lean fish, those are muscle cells. If you had a relatively fatty fish, with great mouthfeel, that might have a fair amount of fat cells,” Cooperhouse says. “We’re actually growing the muscle cells, the fat cells and the connective tissue cells separately.” The science for propagating fish cells is relatively new, since developments in this area have focused on mammalian cell culturing.
BlueNalu, which secured $20 million (£15 million) in series A financing in February 2020, says it is one year away from launching its first product. It is building a 12,000 square metre factory to produce both saltwater and freshwater fish, including red snapper, mahi-mahi, Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna. These species were chosen specifically not to compete with the local fish industry. “We can work on species that are typically imported,” Cooperhouse says. “We can displace imports, create jobs and build factories – our strategy is a win-win all round.”
BlueNalu will be producing high value fillets, rather than the cheaper fish you might find in fishcakes, and will debut its product in restaurants. (Greater volumes will be needed before it enters retail). It plans to launch one species after another, and test them out as appetizers, lunches and dinners. “The restaurants are very excited because we’re offering a product that’s available year round, with a consistent supply and a 100 per cent yield,” Cooperhouse says. “So there’s just a lot of love.”
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