Co-founder and CEO Mike Selden told FoodNavigator-USA: “Initially, quantities will be limited, and we’ll be working with chefs in high-end restaurants doing some really interesting things just to spark a conversation, and get the public to understand who we are - before going into grocery stores and other places.
"But our ultimate goal is to bring the price down so that consumers can have a choice of cheap albacore or skipjack tuna - or our high quality bluefin tuna without any contaminants - for the same price."
He added: “For clean meat, the cost is all tied up in the growth media, and costs are coming down dramatically, so when we did our first prototype [in September], the costs were around $19,000 per pound, but since then we’ve come down 50% and we’re making good progress – although there’s still much more work to do, and by the end of 2019 we plan on having price parity with Bluefin tuna.”
Why start with Bluefin tuna?
While Finless Foods – co-founded by Selden and Brian Wyrwas, molecular biologists who met at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – has been experimenting with multiple marine species, they decided to focus on Bluefin tuna to begin with for several reasons, said Selden.
“The main reason is conservation. I got into this with the environment in mind; it was originally going to be a PhD project, as people know that Bluefin tuna are oftentimes on and off the threatened species list.”
From a more practical perspective, he said, “Working with any teleost fish with a dorsal fin is about the same, but picking a high value fish allows us to get to market faster. We can create price parity with Bluefin tuna much more quickly than a clean meat company could get to price parity with chicken, for example.”
The business model
Given that Finless Foods was only incorporated in March 2017 and has just seven full time employees, the business model could evolve, he said.
Right now, explained Selden, “We’re gunning towards producing this product ourselves. However, if the right opportunity came up for a partnership, we’re totally not opposed… although our current financials don’t require a partner to get us to market. We recently partnered with sustainable ingredients company called Hi-Food in Parma, Italy, for example.”
Asked for details about commercial scale production plans, he said: “We’re still very much in the research phase and will be until at least the start of 2019, but we’re looking all over in terms of commercial scale production facilities and think we’ll probably stay in the area; there’s a lot of really promising facilities we’ve already looked at, so all options are on the table right now.”
As for equipment, he said: “Eventually we hope to create our own specialized kit, but as the capital costs are so intense, we’re shaping our process to use off the shelf equipment right now."
On financing, he explained: “We’re just closing a seed round right now, so we have a good amount of money to work with, and we’re looking to do a Series A in 2019, which will be considerably larger. Our investors are in this for the long-haul and understand that it’s not an app or a SaaS (software as a service) play.”
The mechanics of clean fish
Cell lines: Finless Foods is currently “working with a cell type derived from fish muscle… and we isolate the cells we’re looking for,” says co-founder Mike Selden: “The cells must have two qualities: they must be able to proliferate quickly and efficiently and differentiate into the muscle, fat, and connective tissues that people are looking to eat.
“We have to do some manipulation to make them do exactly what we’re looking for, but proliferating and differentiating are things that they do naturally…”
Scaffolding: In order to create fish products with the look and feel of the genuine article, the cells have to be seeded onto scaffolds, which direct the differentiation of various cell types to encourage an organized pattern of muscle, fat, and connective tissue cells, he said.
“We’re working on a few different scaffolding options – the idea is having a scaffold that’s mostly ECM [extra cellular matrix], what’s normally scaffolding that holds these cells together inside a fish. We then seed the scaffolding with the fat and muscle cells … The scaffolding is made out of food grade materials [as it is subsumed within the final product, so would have to be made out of something edible that would not impact the taste or safety of the final product].”
The growth medium: Critically, Finless Foods has made solid progress on developing a cost effective growth medium in which its cells can proliferate, by effectively programming microbes (yeast) to produce the growth factors (proteins) that tell the fish cells to grow, he said.
“Our growth medium comprises standard food-grade salts and sugars, and proteins - or growth factors - which are signals that help cells proliferate, and we are creating these in-house.
“We’re trying to imitate the biochemical environment inside the fish, so we’re taking fish DNA that produces fish growth factors and we’re putting them into microbial systems like yeast, which produces the growth factors.”
Terminology: I like the term ‘clean meat’
As for the terminology surrounded cell-cultured meat and fish (clean meat? lab-grown meat? cultured meat?), consumers (and regulators) will probably decide, although Selden likes the 'clean energy' analogy as he says cultured meat and fish is more environmentally friendly, but also ‘cleaner’ in a literal sense in that it will be free of antibiotics, pathogens, and other contaminants found in conventional meat.
“I like the term ‘clean meat’ because it’s simple and it gets across what we’re doing. We’re creating fish in sterile conditions, so you don’t have the same challenges with bacteria and infections or food-borne pathogens, which also means it lasts longer with less spoilage. But it’s also cleaner for the environment… no giant fish farms with pesticides and herbicides, and there’s no slaughter [an important factor for consumers attracted to clean meat from an animal welfare perspective].”
Regulation and labeling
As for labeling, he said: “We only just brought on our first non-scientific hire three weeks ago so we don’t have firm answer on labeling yet beyond saying that we will make it very clear to people what they are eating, so absolutely we’ll label it so people know where it has come from.
“We want people to know our product was made this way because we think it’s better… that’s why they are buying it. It’s not as if we’re trying to trick anyone into buying our product.”
On the regulatory front, he said: “We don’t anticipate any major issues, but we’re working closely with FDA and we’ll also be publishing toxicity tests to reassure people about the safety of our products. But just as important is that we want to have an open conversation with the public about this, so we can prove that what we are doing is safe and properly regulated.”
There are clearly marketing challenges around producing meat in a bioreactor – rather than in an animal - especially in a food culture that is increasingly suspicious of people in lab coats ‘meddling’ with their food, and a growing demand for more ‘natural,’ ‘minimally processed’ and simple foods.
That said, consumers are starting to think more carefully about the cost of industrialized farming in terms of animal welfare, food safety (heavy metals, plastics) and sustainability, particularly when it comes to fish, given that overfishing is a huge and growing problem, he argued.
“I came into this from a sustainability angle, but we’ve also been focusing on the health aspects – our products have no mercury no plastics, no antibiotics and growth hormones. They are delicious and cost effective, and we can also design the process to create very lean fish or more fatty fish, and give people exactly what they want.”
But what about the GMO factor, which has created PR problems for several pioneers in the synthetic biology arena?
According to Selden: “We’re not GMO [according to the definition enshrined in the 2016 federal GMO labeling legislation - not yet in force]; we use genetic engineering in the creation of our growth factors used in our growth medium, but the proteins are not present in the final product, although I don’t know whether we’d meet the non-GMO project definition [which does not allow GM techniques at any stage of the production process, regardless what’s in the finished product].”
He added: “A lot of people in coastal cities in America are a bit out of touch with how people really eat and what they care about. From my perspective, when people say they want organic or non-GMO, what they really mean is that they want safe food and food that doesn’t harm the environment, and that is exactly what we are offering.”
The best known names in the clean meat space are mosameat in the Netherlands, Future Meat Technologies and SuperMeat in Israel, Memphis Meats, Finless Foods and Hampton Creek in the US and Integriculture in Japan. (New Jersey-based Modern Meadow has pivoted from food to other applications such as animal-free leather.)
Speaking at FOOD VISION USA, Good Food Institute senior scientist Dr Liz Specht said there had been a flurry of new players entering the space over the past couple of years, some of which were in “stealth mode, and not publicly disclosed yet,” while others “are so new they don’t even have logos yet.”