As disclosed in a recent CBS Insight report, 30% of global human calorie consumption is sourced from meat products. Also revealed in the report is the credible threat that lab-based or plant-based meat startups pose to the $90 billion meat industry. Analysts at Barclays project that the alternative to meat market may reach $140 billion in the next 10 years.
Even though production cost for lab-based meat is higher than animal based meat, the resource comparison data published on CB insights show a significantly lower water usage, greenhouse emissions and land use in lab-based meat compared to animal meat.
Lab-based fish still has a few years before hitting the shelves, however, it is important to gain clarity on the production process, safety and other important details. Lauran Madden, the lead scientist at BlueNalu: a cellular aquaculture company, was interviewed for this article .
Olayanju: Tell us about yourself and what has led to what you do today
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Madden : I’ve been interested in engineering and biology since high school. I decided to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering because I enjoy problem solving.
At Cornell University, I had the opportunity to also pursue a minor in Biomedical Engineering as well as gain laboratory experience. I worked with Dr. Mike Kotlikoff at the Cornell Veterinary School whose laboratory focused on cardiac tissue physiology and used fluorescent markers to evaluate cell health. In addition, I worked with Dr. Claude Cohen on polymer networks and became interested in materials applications.
Based on my interests, I found Dr. Buddy Ratner’s lab at the University of Washington (UW) and was able to attend UW Bioengineering for my PhD. It was during grad school that I experienced the wealth of possibilities at the intersection of biology and engineering. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Chuck Murry and Dr. Michael Laflamme working on implantation of stem cell derived cardiomyocytes using biodegradable polymers we developed in the Ratner lab. Following the project from conception to application as a solution for cardiac repair was truly exciting for me.
Following this experience, I delved deeper into the tissue engineering world at Duke University during my postdoctoral training with Dr. Nenad Bursac. Here, I was able to lead a new project focused on creating functional human skeletal muscle for drug testing and disease modeling. We were successful in creating contractile human muscle from both healthy and disease patients. One of the most interesting applications was to harvest cells from Pompe patients involved in a clinical trial. Using these cells, we could create muscle in vitro to test the current treatment and compared to alternate treatments.
I decided to transition from academia to industry to be in a faster paced environment where the technology I developed could be advanced by a company and brought to the world. I’m proud to be leading the R&D teams at BlueNalu as we develop new technologies to bring great tasting and healthy seafood to the masses.
Olayanju: What is cell-based fish or lab-cultured fish, help people understand this?
Madden: Cell-based fish is real fish, such as a fish fillet that one would typically encounter but produced from both muscle and fat cells. These two cells types are what classically make up the fish fillet with muscle providing protein and structure and fat providing the omega-3s as well as buttery taste. We extract each cell type from the species of interest and grow them in liquid media (amino acids, salts, vitamins, and fats) to increase the number of cells. Similar to other cell-based food processes such as yogurt (bacteria) or beer (yeast), the cells can be grown in large, pre-sterilized tanks. This ensures cleanliness of the cell-based product compared to the traditional products. Upon harvest, the cells are concentrated and assembled into the product, such as a fillet. BlueNalu uses are the same cell types with the same genes and nutritional value as wild caught or farmed fish. There are no genetic modification involved.
Olayanju: With tissue culture there could be the problem of contamination, how do you plan to handle this? Is there any precedence for the approach you intend to adopt?
There is precedence for prevention of contamination in both the food and biopharma industries. In the food industry, they use Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). There is an extensive set of documentation for different industries (seafood HACCP ). The upstream portion of our facility will be reminiscent of a brewery – you have a cell in liquid culture. Here too, you must control sterility so that no rogue organisms (other yeasts or bacteria) contaminate the production run. Water or incoming nutrients are sterilized by heat or filtration and monitored for quality. Monitoring of various production segments and the final product will also be performed.
Automation is used in many food and biopharma facilities. There are engineering controls such as air filtration and negative pressure that can be used to prevent contaminants from entering sensitive areas. In addition, automation limits the amount of human contact to critical areas. In continuous systems, automation can be engineered into a new or existing system to get different pieces of equipment to operate in harmony. This has the other added benefits of streamlining the process and increasing efficiency in most cases as discussed here.
Olayanju: How do you plan to scale this after the successful initial adoption?
Madden: BlueNalu has a five-phase strategy to commercialization. Lou Cooperhouse, BlueNalu CEO, presented our future food production facility (phase 5) at a few meetings already with a design. Each 150,000 sq. ft. facility will produce between nine-million and 18-million pounds of finished seafood products per year, or 36 to 72 million seafood fillets per year. BlueNalu’s plan is to break ground on its first production facility in five years.
In the immediate future, we are optimizing the process on smaller scales with the target of a market launch in the next couple years. During this time, we will optimize the cell growth process as well as the product development. Ideally, the food production facilities could be replicated in different regions – potentially with region specific products – and reduce the need for imported seafood while adding to the jobs of the local economy.
Olayanju: The reagents you use in your processes may give you the outcomes you desire but have you conducted studies to evaluate the possible effect of these reagents on people?
Madden: The reagents used in our processes are safe they are FDA approved edible products and some are products naturally found in fish.
Olayanju: If there are 4 important things people should know about lab cultured fish what will that be?
1. Cell-based fish is real fish. Cells are the building blocks of all living creatures! Muscle (meat) in particular has incredible regenerative abilities that make it possible to culture these particular building blocks outside of the body. We are simply harnessing this natural ability to create another source of seafood products.
2. Technologies currently exist to turn the dream of cell-based seafood into a reality. Many food products already contain cells as ingredients or catalysts, e.g. yogurt, bread, kombucha, cheese. In our case, fish cells are similar to those grown for these products and require the same care such as the right feed and environment to grow. The manufacturing of cell-based fish will be similar in nature to a brewery except that you can grill or fry your fish fillet rather than bottle and drink it.
3. The global seafood supply needs support. As demand for seafood grows with the global population, the existing seafood sources cannot keep up. In addition to animal welfare issues, overfishing hurts the vast and essential biodiversity of our oceans that we all rely on.With cell-based seafood, we can help provide a stable supply of seafood across the world to both reduce stress on the oceans and liberate consumers from the existing price and quality fluctuations.
4. Cell-based fish is safe and can provide desired health benefits. Our goal is to create a food product without genetic modification, with all safe and edible components, and without the environmental contaminants. The cell feed is composed of all edible components, such as amino acids, salts, vitamins, and fats. In the future, the cell feed could even potentially alter the fat content to produce products with increased healthy fats. Additional engineering controls will be in place to ensure the high quality of input and outputs – providing many controls lacking in nature. Products are packaged in a clean environment without any contact from bacteria on the fish skin or guts. Our water is pure and free from toxins, mercury, and microplastics. Have you eaten mercury free tuna yet? We could make that.