Perhaps lost in the current popularity of plant-based foods as an alternative to traditional proteins is the rapid evolution of lab-grown meats. These proteins are not vegetable-based facsimiles of burgers, bacon, or chicken, for example, but created and cultured from the cells of specific animals in a controlled environment, rather than harvesting the real thing.
B2B research firm Markets and Markets estimates the “cultured” meat industry will be worth $214 million by 2025, growing to $593 million by 2032—a 15.7% increase. Many companies in this segment are still in the latter stages of R&D while taking on new investors to grow their business, and as a result, lab-grown meat likely won’t be widely available until at least 2022 or later.
One of those companies inching closer to launching their first product is BlueNalu, a cultured seafood brand based in San Diego. We spoke with two of the people behind BlueNalu—Lou Cooperhouse, president & CEO; and Lauran Madden, PhD, VP of research and product development—to find out where they see cultured seafood fitting in along the cold chain, and why they think BlueNalu will have a positive impact on the planet as well as on plates.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Lou Cooperhouse, president & CEO at BlueNalu.
Lauran Madden, PhD, BlueNalu's VP of research and product development.
R&FF: Why did you start BlueNalu and what issues in the food industry are you specifically addressing?
Cooperhouse: I’ve worked in the food industry for more than 35 years, and over the past couple of decades, I became increasingly aware of the extraordinary challenges caused by our global protein supply chain, and the increasing interest by consumers to make their purchasing decisions based on product sustainability. I recognized that global demand for seafood is at an all-time high and is anticipated to increase significantly in the decades ahead. However, our global supply is diminishing, resulting in a significant supply chain gap that will exist during the coming years. Our global supply of seafood is increasingly insecure and fraught with issues of animal suffering and bycatch, damage to our oceans from trawling and nets, and potentially dangerous and illegal labor practices. The industry is also associated with products that are frequently misrepresented to consumers and potentially contaminated with mercury, microplastics, parasites, and pollutants.
BlueNalu was founded while I was working in Hawaii, which was an ideal setting, as Hawaii is located within one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet in the center of the Pacific Ocean, and where much of our global seafood supply is today. We must do something to maintain our ocean ecosystem, as our populations of marine species have been cut in half since 1970, and 90% of remaining fish stocks are exploited or depleted. BlueNalu is a solution to this global challenge.
When I first learned about technical advances that can result in the manufacture of high-quality protein products via cellular agriculture and aquaculture, I realized that cell-based seafood could represent a solution, and could have the most disruptive potential in the entire global protein category due to the benefits that would result from this process. BlueNalu is pioneering the category of cell-based seafood, and we aim to supplement current industry practice, in which fish are farmed or wild-caught from our ocean. We will produce real seafood products directly from fish cells in a way that’s healthy for people, humane for animals, and sustainable for our planet.
R&FF: How is a BlueNalu product sourced, created, packaged and distributed?
Madden: Our products are made from an initial sample of the desired fish species, including up to three kinds of cells: the muscle, fat, and connective tissues of the fish. We harness the innate ability of these cells to generate their respective cell types by feeding the cells a mixture of amino acids, salts, lipids, sugars, and vitamins in a controlled environment that is not susceptible to contaminants such as mercury or other toxins. The cells are then propagated at large volumes similar to other known food processes such as yogurt (bacteria) or beer (yeast), where cells are grown in large, pre-sterilized stainless steel tanks. Our cells are then concentrated and formed into seafood fillets, poke cubes and other product forms that consumers love, and which are ready for packaging and distribution in the frozen, raw or value-added state to foodservice providers and eventually to retail.
BlueNalu's cell-based seafood can be formed into filets, poke cubes, and other shapes familiar to consumers. Image courtesy of BlueNalu.
R&FF: Is a BlueNalu product temperature-sensitive while being created, or just the final packaged item before it’s distributed to customers?
Madden: Raw materials used in the process, as well as the cells, are temperature sensitive. Cells in culture can only grow within a certain temperature range. If it’s too low they will not proliferate, and if it’s too high they’ll become cooked. The protein in the cells and final product has similar temperature dependence as that of conventional seafood and must be processed accordingly. The final product may have a longer shelf life based on anticipated low or possibly no microbial presence, but it will still be frozen or refrigerated to maintain product quality and safety.
R&FF: What is BlueNalu’s timeline for its initial product launch, and what will those products be?
Cooperhouse: BlueNalu is specifically targeting species that are overfished, primarily imported, and difficult to farm-raise. As a result of our strategy, we will reduce fishery pressure, displace the need for imports, create jobs, and enhance food security in each country where we operate. We have developed a multi-species platform technology, in which we are initially developing finfish products that include mahi-mahi, Pacific bluefin tuna, and red snapper.
Our first product will be mahi-mahi, which we will launch in a cube form for poke, ceviche, and other foodservice applications. This initial market launch will occur as soon as we have completed our pilot-scale production facility and our regulatory review, which are both anticipated to occur during the next 9 to 12 months. We’ll initially ship our product as frozen to a select number of restaurants for a series of limited-time offerings. This will enable us to demonstrate consumer acceptance, receive customer feedback and prepare for large-scale production. Larger production volumes will include additional species and product forms to meet consumer demand following the completion of our first large-scale commercial production facility, which we feel can be completed in 2024 or 2025.
R&FF: What are your distribution targets for BlueNalu products, and what strategies are you using to maximize efficiencies along the cold chain?
Cooperhouse: Our first pilot-scale food production facility will produce approximately 200 to 500 pounds of cell-based seafood per week, which will go to foodservice establishments. We’ll continuously innovate and introduce new species and new products out of this FDA registered, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility. Following this initial phase of consumer testing and upon the completion of our first large-scale production facility, we’ll expand foodservice offerings and explore retail and direct-to-consumer models.
BlueNalu is focused on attracting strategic partners and investors that can support our global reach. These partners will provide us with a broad range of expertise and infrastructure in supply chain, operations, marketing, sales, and distribution. As the global seafood market is so fragmented, it’s critical that we continually establish these types of partnerships, including logistics and cold storage providers, that can support us with our global distribution requirements.
BlueNalu's pilot production facility will make up to 500 pounds of cell-based seafood, which will initially go to restaurants and foodservice operators. Image courtesy of BlueNalu.
R&FF: What are some of BlueNalu’s sustainability initiatives?
Cooperhouse: BlueNalu’s model is to locate our food manufacturing facilities close to consumer markets to reduce transport time, cost and environmental impact, and ensure the quality and freshness of our products. We’re committed to responsible and sustainable sourcing, processing, packaging and distribution of our seafood products, and we’re proud to be aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 14, Life Below Water. Our focus at BlueNalu is on providing the opportunity for ocean biodiversity to regenerate, while providing consumers the same great taste and nutritional benefits of seafood they love, without compromise.
As we expand production into our R&D and pilot-scale food production facility in San Diego, we’ll work with third-party organizations to establish a life cycle assessment of our production method, which will allow BlueNalu to identify and evaluate our environmental impact as we expand production globally. We’ve also started a sustainable packaging initiative, and we’re committed to working with partners at each level of the supply chain that share our mission for sustainability.
BlueNalu's products will be shipped refrigerated or frozen to help maintain product quality and safety. Image courtesy of BlueNalu.
R&FF: What are BlueNalu’s goals for the rest of 2021 and into 2022?
Cooperhouse: In January, BlueNalu announced $60 million in new financing, marking the largest financing to date globally in the cell-based seafood industry. This funding will enable the completion of the world’s first cell-based seafood pilot-scale production facility, allow us to complete our requirements for FDA regulatory review, and initiate marketplace testing in a variety of foodservice establishments throughout the United States. Our 40,000-square-foot pilot production facility is anticipated to be completed this fall and will be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) inspected food facility.
We are also continually expanding our team and expect to double in size during the next year. We’ll be hiring experts in biology, engineering, operations, distribution, marketing, sales and other functions. We’re also continually evaluating strategic partners that can support our growth in global markets and in areas that include supply chain, engineering, operations, sales, marketing and distribution. We're currently preparing to enter initial market testing in the next 12 to 15 months and we plan to develop our first large-scale production facility in the next 3 to 5 years.
R&FF: Is there anything you’d like to add or something we missed?
Cooperhouse: The world needs sustainable seafood options, and BlueNalu is here to provide what we feel will be a transformative solution and a paradigm shift, migrating our global supply-restricted business model to a demand-driven model instead. BlueNalu can literally democratize seafood, making products like bluefin tuna accessible and affordable to all.
We are very excited about the opportunity to provide consumers around the globe with nutritious and delicious cell-based seafood products. We hope your readers will follow our progress and stay tuned on our approaching launch in foodservice. We also encourage readers to follow Eat Blue, our educational platform that highlights sustainable seafood choices and celebrates life below water.