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Taking the 'sea' out of seafood?

‘Cellular aquaculture’ and vegan 'seafood' ventures are popping up all across the United States. Are they about to become big business?

The amount of news coming out on vegan and in particular on cellular – or lab-grown – seafood this year is truly astonishing. Companies -- many of them startups funded by Silicon Valley investors -- are being launched, all with the goal to produce slaughter-free fish and seafood.

“It’s time to rethink seafood,” two-month old cellular aquaculture business BlueNalu writes on its website. The company joins others such as Finless Foods, which aims to have its lab-grown bluefin tuna on the market by the end of 2019, saying “we’re on a mission to transform the way fresh, sustainable seafood arrives on our tables.”

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Comparably, brands such as New Wave Foods, Good Catch Foods, Sophie’s Kitchen and Ocean Hugger are producing vegan versions of seafood, including tuna, shrimp, crab and lobster made from plant-based ingredients such as algae or tomatoes.

Is this a fleeting trend or are our wildest sci-fi fantasies actually becoming reality? At least investors seem to believe in it, with several of the startups nabbing substantial amounts of money to fund their ambitions.

Looking at some of the latest and hottest food trends indicates they might be on the right track. Vegetarianism, veganism and to some extent pescatarianism are on the rise.

Consumer awareness is rising with income growth in developed countries, better education and access to information.

And quite frankly issues such as climate change, plastics in our oceans, microplastics in our fish, overfishing and illegal fishing, health and environmental hazards from fish farming, as well as slave labor in the supply chain, are not the best selling points.

The entry barrier to try plant-based, vegan seafood is relatively low, in my view. Even the strongest believer in an animal-based diet would at least give it a try.

But would consumers eat seafood that originated in a petri dish?

Nonprofit research organization Faunalytics and the Good Food Institute recently conducted a survey of 1,200 Americans, asking them if they would eat “clean meat,” or meat grown from animal cells in a laboratory. The answers could hint at a new future for the food and seafood industry.

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Most respondents had never heard of "clean meat" before but after learning more about it, 66 percent said they were willing to try it at least once. Forty-six percent said they'd buy it regularly.

The key, researchers found, lies in the messaging.

Names such as "in-vitro meat" and "lab-meat" can be off-putting and unnatural. “Clean meat” -- or “clean seafood” for that matter -- gets the point across: to grow proteins without antibiotics and hormones.

Challenging consumer’s perceptions of "natural" and posing the idea that most feedlots call on inherently unnatural practices is the most effective way to market these products, the survey found.

Leading with the potential environmental benefits of growing meat in a laboratory worked too, and 73 percent of those polled said they were confident it would feed a growing world using less land and water and fewer carbon emissions.

The arguments for clean seafood, cellular aquaculture, vegan seafood, lab-grown seafood -- call it whatever you want -- are pretty strong.

We should start thinking about how these products might transform our industry. It's a radical and new way of producing food and it will arrive eventually, and probably a lot sooner than you’d imagine.

Comments? Email me at elisabeth.fischer@intrafish.com

Twitter: EF_IntraFish

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