BlueNalu CEO on the Challenges Facing Cell-Cultured Seafood
7 December 2021 - Increasingly, coverage of alternative meats, be it plant-based, cell-cultured or fermentation-derived, is on the rise. News surrounding beef, pork and chicken grown in a laboratory is a recurring feature in today's animal protein industry and beyond. Despite this, cell-cultured seafood doesn't always pull the same attention.
Global consumption per capita of traditional seafood is at an all-time high. Hoping to capitalise on its popularity and make a name for itself in the cultured seafood sector is San Diego's BlueNalu. For President and CEO, Lou Cooperhouse, the company's goal is clear: "to create delicious seafood products at scale with all of the positive benefits that seafood offers but without any of the negative issues that might be associated with wild-caught or farm-raised products"
President & CEO BlueNalu
BlueNalu aims to recreate fish proteins, with a focus on species that are overfished, heavily imported and difficult to rear via traditional methods. As a result of this strategy, the company aims to reduce fishery pressure, displace the need for imports, create jobs, and enhance food security.
So far, the company has raised $85 million in funding, the largest of any cell-cultured seafood producer, of which there is a growing number, with investors from all over the globe.
Mr Cooperhouse believes cell-cultured seafood has a considerable and potentially disruptive market potential, but challenges remain.
Some of these challenges are unique to cell-cultured seafood, including the development of fish cell lines. Cell lines are cultures of animal cells that can be propagated repeatedly and sometimes indefinitely. For BlueNalu, they had to source and create stable cell lines for a variety of fish species, which had never been done before outside of mammalian species.
As is the case with all cell-cultured products, the largest hurdle yet to be tackled will be the successful scaling up of manufacturing to reach a much wider audience than is currently feasible. However, that is not the only challenge facing the growing industry.
The Challenges of Commercialisation
Cooperhouse admits there are a "series of challenges" facing cell-cultured seafood products, before they can reach a commercially viable scale.
"First, there are technology and engineering challenges, as no company has ever demonstrated proof of scale for cell-cultured proteins at a reasonable cost," he began. Confirming that this is a key aim at BlueNalu - along with every cultured meat or seafood producer - to validate proof of concept at a commercial scale.
"Second, there are regulatory challenges, as a defined methodology for enabling commercial sale of cell-cultured products did not previously exist anywhere in the world," Cooperhouse added. The only place at present to have successfully passed legislation for the sale of cultured meat products is Singapore. However, globally, the groundwork is being laid, with Cooperhouse confirming that "nations around the world are developing a regulatory methodology now that will ultimately enable cell-cultured protein products to be manufactured and sold to the public."
Finally, as a result of the pandemic, "[there have been] supply chain barriers, as this industry requires food-grade GRAS raw materials and not pharma-grade materials." Despite these challenges, he went on to say that the barriers limiting cell-cultured meat are falling, as consumer and industry interest in cell-cultured products grows, the drive to get them to market at affordable prices increases.
Response to Challenges
When pressed on how BlueNalu was going to mitigate these concerns and overcome these challenges, Cooperhouse told Feedinfo that the company's focus on technology and premium products enables them the greatest potential for consumer adoption and regulatory approval on a global scale.
This strategy includes, "a platform technology for finfish that results in a supply chain solution and the potential to build a global brand for cell-cultured seafood," underpinned by superior products in a premium market.
With global seafood consumption at an all-time high, Cooperhouse expects BlueNalu to capitalise on this burgeoning market by focussing on "whole muscle, centre-of-the-plate product forms (and not ground and formed or blended products) that result in premium value, benefits, and the best potential for profitability ."
All of this is supported by BlueNalu's aim to provide sustainable cell-cultured seafood products with the same nutritional, textural and sensory characteristics as traditionally produced seafood, "but without mercury, microplastics, toxins, or other environmental contaminants that may be associated with conventional products."
Since the company's conception, "BlueNalu has established a multi-stage commercialisation strategy that identified various independent milestones," Cooperhouse told Feedinfo.
The next stage of which is BlueNalu's stage gate process, which will see the company transition to ever larger output volumes over time, while also "transitioning to continual reductions in product cost, the most continuous process, and the greatest potential volume that can be attained in a factory with the least amount of capital and operational expenditure."
Pressed on the timescales of these developments, Cooperhouse told us that they are planning to introduce products in a test market as soon as is feasibly possible, pending the completion of the company's pilot plant and final regulatory approval from the FDA. "After the pilot phase, we will expand manufacturing operations and introduce additional species and product forms to meet consumer demand," he added.
Unfortunately, the impacts of the pandemic have prevented the company from meeting its ambitious target of launching products to market before the end of 2021. As a result, no timescale was provided for when this goal would be met.
Supporting this technological development, Cooperhouse believes, is BlueNalu's focus on fostering strategic partnerships, such as its partnerships with Nutreco-owned Skretting, as well as traditional seafood producers. In addition to supporting the company with "supply chain, operations, marketing, sales and distribution," the team is working with Skretting to try and lower the cost of the nutrient-rich medium required to grow cells, which is "a huge contributor to costs" when developing cell-cultured meat.