There’s an art to catching a fish, as many an avid angler will tell you. But for biochemist Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods, it takes some serious science to grow one. Serious science such as extracting a sample about the size of a quarter from a living fish, putting it into a bioreactor filled with a nutrient-rich growth medium that includes protein, sugars and salts, and watching the cells divide and grow out into muscle tissue.
You don’t end up with a fish swimming about waiting for someone to toss in a bait-laden hook, but you will get a mass of fish cells that will keep dividing and making more cells. In not very much time, you’ll get some fish that can be cooked and eaten. It won’t be an actual living fish, of course, but it will be fish nonetheless.
No fish will be killed to produce these products, Selden said.
Although this may sound like something out of science fiction, with words like “Frankenfish” coming to mind, the science behind it, which is often referred to as clean-meat technology or cultured meat, is actually happening right now.
In the summer and fall of 2017, Memphis Meats, a company in the Bay Area of California, introduced its meat balls, chicken breast and duck l’Orange all made from meat that had been made in a lab with no animals being killed.
Clean meat is the way it’s described because it’s made in sterile conditions with no fecal matter or blood or dirt to contend with. Clean fish is the way Selden describes his cultured fish.
Memphis Meats’ CEO cardiologist Uma Valeti said the company’s goal is to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way. The same could be said for the fish that Finless Foods is developing, and big food is interested.
None other than meat giant Cargill, along with other heavy-weight investors including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and entrepreneur billionaire Richard Branson of the Virgin group, have invested more than $22 million in Memphis Meats. Finless Foods has also attracted some investors and is seeking others.
Referring to the growing demand for fish as a healthy protein source, coupled with declining fish stocks in the oceans due to overfishing, Selden said he doesn’t want to see fish become a luxury that only wealthy people can afford.
“Our main goal is to get fish to regular people based on cost, taste and nutrition,” he said. “We really want to change the way people see seafood.”
Selden said that he’s always been an environmental advocate.
As such, his thoughts turned to fish and what could be done to help solve the problems of oceans polluted with mercury and other metals, agricultural and industrial chemicals, and plastics. That, coupled with declining fish stocks and the world’s growing population, fueled his determination to be part of the solution.
Then, too, he was concerned about fishing practices such as drag netting and bottom trawling, which not only catch unintended species, such as dolphins and turtles, but also cause severe environmental harm to the ocean floor, which is an important source of food and habitat for fish.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 85 percent of global fish stocks in the oceans are “at significant risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” And, 53 percent of the Earth’s fish stocks are fully exploited.
A 2016 report from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report says that fish provides 6.7 percent of all protein consumed by humans, although that amount is far more in coastal and island communities. The same report urges that more work be put into reining in overfishing, pointing out that almost a third of commercial fish stocks are now fished at biologically unsustainable levels — triple the level of 1974.
Selden and his partner Brian Wyrwas, also a biochemist, have a lofty goal: They want to save the oceans and bring affordable fish that’s not contaminated to the masses.
They have set their sights on producing some cultured bluefin tuna and offering it to restaurants by the end of 2019. Selden said chefs will use their creativity to create a dish their customers would want to order.
Bluefin tuna is currently on the Endangered Species protection list. The species is regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Selden doesn’t fool himself about who the first customers will be — affluent foodies who will appreciate what Finless Foods is doing. “Ethical consumerism” will definitely play an important part in this.
“First it will be a luxury product,” he said, “but our main goal is to make it affordable, delicious, and healthy.”
After introducing it in restaurants, the company wants to move into grocery stores and then into mass distribution.
Besides bringing costs down, the challenge before Finless Foods is to figure out how to add “structure” to the fish. In other words, they can create a “fish mass” with good taste, but adding texture is another story. That will take some engineering.
A bright future
“The sky is the limit,” Selden said. “We can make all sorts of things, including caviar and surimi. And there’s no difference between culturing a tuna cell and a tilapia cell. People will be able to buy these for the same price as they’d pay for cheap contaminated fish. We want to provide a healthier source of protein without contaminants.”
He explained that thanks to cell division, the cost will drop exponentially as the company grows. The cells divide about every 24 hours.
“If we can get the cost down and create fish in a healthier and more environmentally friendly way, we’ll have huge chunks of America wanting to buy it,” he said.
What about food safety?
Selden said there are many reasons the company’s finless foods will be good for food safety.
To begin with, they’ll be made in a sterile environment with pharmaceutical equipment. That, in turn, means there will be less potential for pathogens such as Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli to contaminate the fish.
Another plus for food safety is that there’s no slaughter involved, which means no chance of the edible flesh being contaminated by entrails. There will be less handling and by fewer people, further decreasing the chance of contamination.
Then, too, there will be less time in transit compared to wild caught and farm-raised fish. And the fish will contain no methylmercury.
What about mercury?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to people, especially fetuses and young children.
Fish absorb methylmercury as they feed so it builds up in their tissues. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.
Even so, the FDA recommends fish as a good source of nutrition, even for pregnant and nursing women and young children — as long as it doesn’t contain high levels of methylmercury. Click here to see to see a chart about which fish to avoid, with some specific advice for pregnant and nursing women and parents.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least two times per week as part of a healthy diet, pointing out that it is packed with protein, vitamins, and nutrients that can lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Nothing new about this
It was NASA that came up with the idea of creating renewable protein for astronauts who would be going on a four-year trip to Mars.
In 2002, Morris Benjaminson, a professor emeritus at Touru University in New York, won a small grant from NASA to research the possibility of “lab-grown” meat. Benjaminson and his colleagues extracted chucks of goldfish muscle from live fish and dunked them into vats of fetal bovine serum. The serum is a nutrient-rich mixture brewed from the blood of unborn calves.
After about a week, the fish chunks had grown in size by 14 percent and were similar to fish fillets.
Benjaminson said that because fish are cold-blooded, cell culture conditions aren’t very sensitive to temperature.
According to his obituary when he died last spring at age 86, Benjaminson said that “he had led a scientific team that proved that it was possible to grow meat in the laboratory, helping to found a new discipline of cellular agriculture, which seeks to design new ways of producing products such as milk and meat from cells and microorganisms.”
NASA never followed up on that research, and now Selden and Wyrwas are are doing just that.
“We don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” said Selden , referring to the work NASA had done.
New face of agriculture
Selden pointed out that agriculture has been through many changes. It was only about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago that agriculture emerged in multiple places around the planet, an historic milestone referred to as “the dawn of agriculture.”
“Man would still be a nomad if it wasn’t for that,” Selden said.
From extremely small-scale agriculture where people grew food for themselves, agriculture became industrialized with livestock raised and slaughtered in huge operations and often transported thousands of miles to stores and restaurants.
In the world of fishing, new advances allowed more and more fish to be caught and fish farms that raise thousands upon thousands of fish appeared on the scene.
“Now,” said Selden, “it could be cellular agriculture’s turn on the planet.”
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