Believe it or not, the fish sticks available in the frozen food sections of most supermarkets actually do come from a dead animal. One day in the future though, that may no longer be true. Seafood made without the sea is gaining ground in the ever-growing “cultured meat” world.
Bluu Seafood, a German company, has unveiled its first two finished lab-grown seafood products: fish sticks and fish balls, according to a report from Tech Crunch. The reveal comes less than three years after the company was founded, and is another step forward for a (possibly) more sustainable seafood future.
To make their sticks and balls, Bluu says they collect tissue via a biopsy from a fish, then cultures duplicate cells in a bioreactor fed with a “nutrient rich medium.” The cells are then grown on a scaffolding surface, meant to mimic the structure of fish flesh, according to the company’s website. No fish need to be killed in this process, according to Tech Crunch. Bluu Seafood did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
At least one other company, Avant Meats, has also piloted a version of a cultured seafood product. Avant has been testing variants of lab-grown fish maw (meant to be a dupe of a prized delicacy in Chinese cuisine) since last year. And many others have also entered the race to make real, fake fish a reality. San Francisco-based Wildtype, for example, is gunning for sushi-grade salmon. But Bluu Seafood may be the first company of its kind to unveil a finalized “fish” product.
Cultivated, or lab-grown, burgers and chicken fingers have been long discussed as theoretical environmentally-friendly alternatives to industrial meat production. And though raising and catching fish doesn’t have the same greenhouse gas emission drawbacks as a meat like beef, there are still big environmental downsides to the fishing industry.
By swapping out fishing nets and lines for cell lineages, these companies say they’re hoping to help address problems like overfishing and marine pollution. About 90% of the world’s ocean fisheries are considered at their maximum sustainable fishing capacity or overfished, according to the United Nations. And as climate change progresses, marine life is becoming even more vulnerable. To stay sustainable and avoid further ecological collapse, we will have to harvest less seafood. Plus, there’s the issues of pollution exacerbated by industrial fishing and fish farms.
“Our current course of aquatic animal food production is unsustainable, both wild-caught and [farmed],” said Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist at New York University who studies food systems, in an email to Gizmodo. He added that cultured seafood is “worth investing in” as an alternative, but that the process isn’t without potential environmental pitfalls.
The growth mediums that companies like Bluu Seafood use are generally derived from agricultural products like grains which take a lot of land to produce. Converting and cultivating farmland can exacerbate issues like pesticide pollution and wild habitat loss. “This means that funding of aquaculture research should be public and open, to make sure that these problems are worked out in a transparent manner and that everyone can benefit from the results,” wrote Hayek.
However, whether or not any lab-grown meat product can even scale up to effectively make a dent in the world’s appetite for flesh remains sort of an open question. No cultivated meat company has yet reached profitability selling their product on the market. In fact, only one company is actually approved to sell cultured meat to the public (and only in one place). Good Meat got the regulatory green light in Singapore in 2020.
As Singapore is the only nation on Earth to currently allow the sale of cultured meat as a consumer food product, Bluu will seek approval for its new fish bits there first. If successful, the company will then try the same in the U.S., European Union, and United Kingdom, according to Tech Crunch.
After approval, there’s market testing and the company would need to scale up production. So, we’re still a ways away from being able to buy Bluu Seafood’s breaded false fish in stores. Last month Christian Dammann, the company’s COO, said not to expect their “seafood” on supermarket shelves until 2025.
Update 8/8/2022, 12:54 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from Matthew Hayek.