Cell-based seafood: Will COVID-19 boost the sector?

06 May 2020


cell-based seafood

As the world learns to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, eating behaviours are already changing. The global population is projected to reach more than 9.8 billion by 2050, and with this comes the challenge to secure sustainable, nutritious and plant-friendly food supplies. With the interest in cell-based seafood making waves and the acceptance of “meat” grown in a lab taking off, could the COVID-19 crisis boost further progression in this burgeoning sector?

FoodIngredientsFirst speaks with innovators in cell- and plant-based seafood, as the pandemic shines a light on new ways of consuming fish and meat, in a way which is deemed better for the planet and provides a flexible alternative during times of crisis. Many of the key players in this space also predict significant funding of companies in this sector throughout the year, with a sharpened focus on speed to market.

“Experts have already predicted that demand for meat, poultry and seafood will increase substantially as the global population increases over the next several decades. Now, as the world faces the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing how fragile our food supply chain is and how critical it is for the US to utilise all technology at our disposal to support a flexible and secure food system that can continue to feed the world,” a spokesperson for Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation (AMPS Innovation) tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

A silver lining?

BlueNalu has touted cell-based food as a solution to food security since its inception, and along with sustainability and traceability,  Lou Cooperhouse, President and CEO, sees a greater need for this additional food supply. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened awareness regarding the vulnerability of our planet,” he says. “Consumers are taking a closer look at current food systems, how our food is sourced, and how their food choices can make a difference.”

With the uncertainties and challenges brought by COVID-19, a light is cast on the fragility of our food system, how rapidly supply and demand can become mismatched, the way consumers interact with and receive products can shift, and how the processes we depend on can be put at risk, comments Michael Selden, CEO and Co-Founder of Finless Foods, which harnesses cellular biology to develop new ways to produce nutritious, environmentally-friendly versions of fish and seafood products.

“It definitely shows the importance of agility and ensuring a trusted supply that can be localised and decentralised. Cell-based seafood can be a strong tool moving forward for us to address these challenges in a new, innovative way – to ensure a stable and secure food system that can react quickly to new phenomena,” he tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “If anything, now even more than ever, there is a strong case made for the development and support of this burgeoning industry.”

For Kimberlie Le, Co-Founder at Prime Roots – which makes alternative meats and seafood, made from a whole food protein from koji, grown in California – the global health crisis will provide a silver lining for plant-based meat and seafood. “There has been a growing awareness among the general population about the concerns with animal agriculture from human and environmental health perspectives.”

Consumers are also interested in trying new things while at home and they are also looking for products that are cleaner and healthier and have better shelf-life and safety standards, according to Le. “Plant-based products are much better positioned to serve these growing consumer demands than their animal-based counterparts,” she notes. The cultured and alternative seafood space has attracted significant investments in recent times and technologies show no sign of slowing down. From pioneering technology that grows shrimp meat in a laboratory to fish made from fungus – technologies are breaching new realms of possibility.

“2020 has already been a banner year for companies producing both plant-based and cell-based seafood products in terms of investments,” details Cooperhouse of BlueNalu, who recently closed on a US$20 million Series A round of financing for cell-based seafood. Meanwhile, Gathered Foods, parent company of the Good Catch brand, recently closed a US$32 million Series B round for its plant-based products. I believe that we will see significant additional funding of companies in this sector in 2020, and we will also see increasing announcements of partnerships with conventional multinational food companies which will provide infrastructure to support getting these products efficiently to market,” explains Cooperhouse.

“In the cell-based seafood sector, we will also see advancements in cost reduction and readiness for market launch. We are likely to also see progress at the federal regulatory level, that brings us all closer to commercialisation and market launch. BlueNalu is planning a small market launch later in 2021, pending this regulatory approval,” he continues.

A better catch?

Cooperhouse is also anticipating that there will be a “significant interest in cell-based seafood products from both consumers and foodservice operators.” Cell-based seafood products originating from companies like BlueNalu provide an option that is sustainable, consistent, free of environmental contaminants, with 100 percent yield, that can dramatically reduce the stresses on our ocean and offer many more additional benefits, he stresses. “We are also seeing increased interest in BlueNalu’s cell-based seafood as our process results in a more stable global supply chain and enhanced food security.”

We need various tools in the toolbox to supply this growing demand in the near future, including well-managed wild-caught fisheries, responsible aquaculture, and, importantly, innovations in cell-based seafood, explains Selden of Finless Foods. “Cell-based seafood provides an additional benefit for those species that are in high demand, such as tuna, and specifically Bluefin tuna, which have a strong conservation thesis.”

Global demand for seafood is currently at an all-time high and is anticipated to increase significantly in the decades ahead, particularly as GDP increases in nations around the world.  “Unfortunately,” says Cooperhouse, “Our supply of seafood will be continually challenged to keep up with this demand, and there is great concern from many global organizations regarding our ability to feed our planet with its protein supply in the decades ahead.”

Based on global protein consumption, BlueNalu expects that cell-based seafood products will make up a great majority of all cultured meat products during this time period and the company is building a library of species and seafood products to meet this growing demand.

Responding to waves of change

The regulatory environment for the cell-based industry is in the process of being solidified, to ensure a clear, supportive regulatory pathway to market, explains Selden of Finless Foods. “The biggest difficulty for cell-based seafood is reducing costs to an affordable level for consumers to access,” he notes.

Meanwhile, developing stable cell lines in seafood without genetic engineering is deemed one of the biggest challenges in cell-cultured seafood, Chris Damman, Chief Technical Officer at BluNalu, tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “There were no fish muscle cell lines available worldwide when BlueNalu began operations in June 2018,” he comments. “As all of our products are non-GMO, and we had to develop new cell isolation methods and proliferation protocols.”

Another challenge Damman details is “developing growth media that are serum free and cost efficient.” BlueNalu’s protocols eliminate the need for FBS (fetal bovine serum) in its large-scale production process. “Instead, BlueNalu has developed proprietary formulations that enable us to grow our cells without serum,” he states.

Meanwhile, the goal is to make a product that handles and cooks like conventional fish, he remarks. “BlueNalu did just that and demonstrated this with yellowtail amberjack in December 2019. Our chef demonstrated that our yellowtail can be prepared in various ways, including deep frying and marination in an acidified solution [as in a poke or ceviche application]. Creating cell-based fish pieces that have the right consistency and mouthfeel in the raw state and when cooked is a technical milestone that is very difficult to accomplish,” Damman explains.

Currently, BlueNalu is working on Mahi Mahi as the next species in the company’s product pipeline. “Within the next 12 months it will enter the product development phase where we fine-tune the texture and taste. This product will then be ready to enter a test market in the second half of 2021, once FDA regulatory clearance has been obtained,” reveals Damman.

Turning the tide on plant-based seafood

According to Le at Prime Roots, plant-based seafood and fish are still lacking in the market, but she does expect there to be some new products and advancements in 2020. “This is a largely underserved market, and some sources cite that 40 percent of the consumption of protein globally is in seafood – while we know that less than 1 percent of alternative proteins are targeting seafood,” she highlights.

Many players in the alternative meat space mostly use soy, wheat, or pea-based ingredients, while Prime Roots’ products are made using koji, a fermented Japanese fungus. “In terms of flavours and colors, there are a lot of innovative ingredients from plant and algae sources,” notes Le, adding that “there are many textures and flavours that are almost impossible to replicate with plant bases since they tend to be airy and spongy in texture and have strong flavours.”


Published by foodingredientfirst.com on April 29, 2020
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