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Can Cell-Based Seafood Save the Bluefin Tuna?

High-tech, plant-based meat alternatives have grabbed a healthy share of media headlines in recent years, including the meatless milestone of Burger King serving up Impossible Burgers and last month’s trademark court ruling that Swiss food giant Nestle must change its Incredible Burger branding. 

It’s clear that plant-based proteins have gone mainstream. They proudly share the menu with beef, chicken, and pork on restaurant menus around the world. Now, another type of alternative protein is gaining momentum and attracting investors: cell-based meat, where real, high-quality meat is grown directly from animal cells in a safe, controlled environment much like a beer brewery.

Yet, so far, only a handful of companies around the world are focused on producing cell-based seafood, which will provide the world with a new source of healthy, fresh, and delicious seafood that also is sustainable, free of mercury, microplastics, and antibiotics, just “without the sea.”

Though you can’t find it online or in stores yet, Finless Foods hopes to be the first to use this cell-based process to bring sustainable, traceable and delicious bluefin tuna to your plate. (Full disclosure: my employer, SV Latam Capital, is an investor in Finless Foods).

Michael Selden and his co-founder Brian Wyrwas, who studied biochemistry at UMass Amherst, started the company. Out of the gate, the company grew tilapia, bass, rainbow trout, salmon, mahi-mahi, lobster, and fugu (poisonous pufferfish) meat before settling on bluefin tuna. The number of bluefin tuna in the wild has declined by more that 96 percent compared with before commercial fishing.

Finless Foods, founded in 2017, has developed a proprietary method to produce sustainable, fresh, and local seafood, without the catch, to help ensure a future for the species in the wild. The process involves isolating cells from a fish, feeding those cells the right nutrient mix, and growing real fish meat in a controlled environment until it can be harvested and formed into familiar items like fish fillets, sashimi, and spicy tuna rolls. The company conducted the world’s first cell-based bluefin tuna tasting in 2019. What’s next? Continuing to perfect the taste, texture, and form of bluefin steaks and fillets.

Why Produce Cell-Based Seafood?

One of the biggest reasons to add cell-based seafood to the fresh options available to consumers is to meet our growing demand for seafood without placing increased strain on our wild-caught fisheries, ocean and environment. According to a recently published UN agency warning, released on June 8 (World Oceans Day), global consumption of fish has reached unsustainable levels and hit a record high in 2018.

Our ocean, and the fisheries it supports, are increasingly threatened by overfishing, plastic and other pollution, and the many complex effects of climate change, all of which are damaging the health and sustainability of global fish stocks. Yet, global consumption of fish per capita has reached 20.5 kilograms per year and is forecast to rise by one kilo per person by 2030. As it stands, the current supply only will meet 40 percent of the projected future demand.

Aquaculture has shown itself to be a critical component of our shared global food security, with its production growing at 7.5 percent annually since the sector emerged in 1970. But is it enough, and for all species? Certain types of fish, particularly large predatory ones such as bluefin tuna, have proven difficult to farm successfully and at scale. Yet, many of these species are highly sought after and heavily fished. Finless Foods aims to provide a third, complementary solution that will allow consumers to enjoy bluefin without further compromising the ocean.

This cell-based method of producing fresh seafood also promises to streamline the global and transit-heavy supply chain. Currently, unless you live near the coast, the seafood you purchase in your local market likely was caught or farmed around the world and then shipped many miles before getting to your plate. This not only affects freshness but also produces emissions associated with transit. With cell-based seafood, Finless Foods can produce a virtually unlimited supply of real bluefin tuna anywhere in the world from just one tissue sample, delivering sustainable, trusted seafood to you without the transport.

In recent years of the highest quality and freshest fish has only been available to those who can pay high prices for it. It will take time and further innovation for the cost of cell-based seafood to reach price parity with wild-caught and farmed fish, but this new model has the potential to improve access to seafood at more affordable prices for everyone while creating positive ripple effects in public health, the environment, and society at large.

Once the team at Finless Foods can scale production in the U.S., they plan to launch expanded facilities in other global geographies such as Brazil and Mexico, where people in the service industry recognize the benefits of having a traceable and transparent supply chain, and improved accessibility to high-quality seafood.  

But, Is It Real Fish? Will People Buy It? 

Absolutely, said Finless Foods’ CEO Michael Selden, “It’s not fake. It’s not lab food. It’s not vegetarian. What we’re producing is biologically the same as real bluefin tuna meat — it’s just produced outside of a living animal,” he said. “The potential worldwide market for tuna is already at $42 billion, and it’s growing exponentially without enough supply to meet the demand. As our first offering, we are starting with bluefin tuna. It’s a premium, luxury fish and we can meet the increased demand sustainably. But, our big-picture goal is to tackle the entirety of seafood.”

As of 2017, about one-third of the stocks of the seven principal tuna species were estimated to be fished at biologically unsustainable levels, according to a 2020 UN agency report. The combined weight of all fish stock capable of reproducing (spawning stock biomass) is estimated to have declined by more than 80 percent globally since the 1970s.

While some tuna lovers may be a little unsure about eating cell-based seafood, potential distribution partners already have emerged in Latin America, some of which are seeking exclusive partnerships. The company also is working closely with several top chefs who are passionate about sourcing sustainable, trusted, and traceable seafood and are eager to incorporate it.

Finless Foods is taking a holistic approach to their work, consulting with thought leaders from NGOs, academia, food scientists, and the traditional fishery and aquaculture industry. Some traditional wild-caught fishing companies are already interested in partnering with Finless to provide more options for consumers while addressing weaknesses in the broader supply chain, many of which have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There’s little doubt that our world needs new and innovative ways to produce healthy, sustainable, and trusted food at scale, ensuring stable food systems and improving access and nutrition, and meeting ever-expanding demand for protein.

Is cell-based seafood going to disrupt and take over the market for wild-caught and farmed fish? Not likely, nor the goal. But you can expect to see it sold alongside its wild-caught and farmed counterparts as another healthy, sustainable, and delicious option soon. Which would you choose?