Finless Foods: A Different Kettle of Fish

Long time Sea Change Radio listeners know a thing or two about the challenges of being both a seafood lover and an environmentalist. It’s hard to keep track of which seafoods are sustainable and which involve practices that cause egregious harm to ecosystems and humans alike — so much so that places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium have created handy guides for shopping and ordering at restaurants. Fortunately, there are people dedicated to finding ways to get protein without depleting the planet’s oceans, like our guest today on Sea Change Radio. This week we speak with Shannon Cosentino-Roush, the Chief Strategy Officer of Finless Foods, a start-up that makes a plant-based alternative tuna product and is awaiting federal approval for its cell-based seafood product. We learn about the ins and outs of the alternative seafood industry, look at the exploding popularity of poké bowls, and examine the frontier of cell-based protein manufacturing.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:20 Shannon Cosentino-Roush (SCR) – There are companies working on salmon. There are companies that have worked on mahi-mahi. Finless has been exploring many different species internally with our cell-line research. And so the sky is the limit really of what you can produce.

00:33 Narrator – Long time Sea Change Radio listeners know a thing or two about the challenges of being both a seafood lover and an environmentalist. It’s hard to keep track of which seafoods are sustainable and which involve practices that cause egregious harm to ecosystems and humans alike — so much so that places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium have created handy guides for shopping and ordering at restaurants. Fortunately, there are people dedicated to finding ways to get protein without depleting the planet’s oceans, like our guest today on Sea Change Radio. This week we speak with Shannon Cosentino-Roush, the Chief Strategy Officer of Finless Foods, a start-up that makes a plant-based alternative tuna product and is awaiting federal approval for its cell-based seafood product. We learn about the ins and outs of the alternative seafood industry, look at the exploding popularity of poké bowls, and examine the frontier of cell-based protein manufacturing.

01:49 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Shannon Cosentino-Roush. She is the Chief Strategy Officer for Finless Foods. Shannon, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:58 Shannon Cosentino-Roush (SCR) – Hi, thank you so much for having me.

02:01 Alex Wise (AW) – So explain what problems Finless Foods is trying to address, and then we’ll dive into your technology a little bit later in the discussion.

02:11 SCR – Thank you so much. So as you know or maybe don’t know, seafood consumption is at the highest it’s ever been and only looking to increase. So all of the projections are up that there will be increased seafood demand in the future. This is for many reasons from population growth to the fact that as income grows in middle income countries. The demand for protein increases and so how are we supplying this demand? Right now there are two primary sources, right? Wild capture seafood, so fish that comes from the ocean, and aquaculture. Well, wild capture seafood is leveling off. What that means is only 6% of our wild capture fisheries are under-fished, meaning that we can take more from the ocean sustainably and the rest are either overfished or, maximally sustainably fished, meaning we can’t take more from the ocean. In addition, there’s aquaculture, and aquaculture, as you imagine, can either be farmed at sea or farmed on land. Now, with the new innovations. And that is another source of supply. But aquaculture is also in its own rapid innovation cycle, meaning we’re rapidly increasing protein conversion rates. And how can we keep the fish healthy, etc. and there are not currently aquaculture systems that are closed cycle for species. And so that means that for species like tuna, the only way we can currently get them is from the ocean. So if you see if you can’t see my hands, but if you saw my hands, you could see that we have a demand curve that’s going up and we have a supply curve that’s constrained by many factors. And so what are we going to do to meet that delta? And that’s where you’ll hear alternative seafood come into the play and that can be everything from plant-based seafood to cell culture at seafood, which I’m here to talk about both today and those are two forms of innovations that we’re trying to use to create new sources of supply, to meet that growing demand. In addition, I know you’ve mentioned this in other of your podcasts, Alex and I want to bring it up here. The ocean is facing increased pressures from so many factors right now more than ever in the past one largest and the and the one that’s probably talked about the most is climate change. That is not only increasing the temperatures of the ocean, which is affecting migratory. Fish stocks, but it also is triggering things like ocean acidification. In addition, there’s marine pollution, so another popularly talked about, you know, subject right now is is plastics and microplastics specifically. We also have historic environmental contaminants like mercury and so in a world in which we’re facing increased pressures on the ocean, how do we also continue to supply healthy and sustainable seafood? And I think that these new alternative technologies, both plant-based and cell cultured seafood. Also, can address those challenges as well.

05:02 Alex Wise (AW) – What are the biggest challenges on the plant-based side of things that I know that plant based seafood doesn’t have the protein amounts that you would get from a wild catch seafood product for example?

05:14 Shannon Cosentino-Roush (SCR) – Yeah, I would say actually on the plant-based side, what’s really cool is we have the technologies to produce today and so we’re able to scale. Also, the plant-based seafood space is so diverse in terms of technologies being used to produce these products that there’s a range of benefits and nutritional comparability from everything from nutritional comparability to even improved nutrition. It really depends on the company. It’s really hard to kind of put a one-size-fits-all approach. I would say that the thing that the plant-based industry is probably wrestling with the most is really just consumer adoption and that’s everything from getting the products into the hands of consumers, right. So thinking of food service and the gatekeeper, that distribution is to retail and getting it on the calls to everything from getting consumers to be willing to do that first trial and then even more so doing the repeat purchase and just under and just getting consumers to even understand what is plant based seafood, how is it made, what are the benefits, what’s the problem statement, that plant based seafood is set to solve. I think that’s where we really are in the industry. And that’s probably more of the area that we need to improve on rather than just scale and price point.

06:30 AW – And Finless Foods’ product is mostly replicating tuna right now. You’re not doing like a salmon or a halibut or something like that. Why don’t you take us behind the scenes and walk us through the production process of your plant based seafood if you can.

06:47 SCR – So our plant-based tuna product is actually a pokey style, which means it’s intended to be served and consumed raw. So use like you would in a spicy tuna roll or a pokey bowl, or even a tuna flat bread, pizza or taco. And so that means that our product is not intended to be cooked. I say that because it’ll make more sense when I describe the under the hood. So when we’ve been developing this product, we really focused on our first product being minimally processed short and easy to understand ingredient statement. And so what we did was we created a product that’s hero ingredient is the winter melon. I get a ton of questions about winter melon because it’s not something. Super commonly consumed in the United States, but it’s more commonly consumed in sort of Asian cuisine. So we basically take this winter melon, we dice it up, we dehydrate it and Stew it with flavoring like tamari and soy sauce. We HPP it for shelf life and that’s basically it. So things that you could imagine even doing in a home kitchen, right per say and then an industrialized kitchen and that’s why we often say that it’s a minimally processed product that’s really important because in the in the plant based space lately, there’s been a lot of questions. Around are these products as good for us? Are they highly processed? Are they high in sodium and in fact actually our product is low in sodium and so that was really important for us with this first product. Because its hero ingredient is a whole fruit. I learned that winter melon is a fruit, not a vegetable. It means that the product is not. It’s not heroes by protein and we’re very transparent about that and we talk about it often. On the flip side, winter melon is known as a known to be superfood in Asian cuisine, and so it’s something that folks are really excited about that our product is not only. Low in sodium and low in fat and low in cholesterol, but also has this hero superfood ingredient.

08:51 AW – But it’s also not like a part of a monoculture in terms of like weed or soy or corn, like you’re not seeing winter melon having a deleterious effect on soil, I’m assuming.

09:04 SCR – And we also get a lot of questions about it not being like soy etc. And I think there’s just this perception that plant-based products all include the same types of ingredients. And so there’s this fascination in the fact that we’ve taken a different approach. I will say, though, that in the nutritional comparability just like everyday products we consume like granola bars or yogurt, right? All products are not created equally and so I think the nutritional comparability really depends on the product. And so I wouldn’t say it’s safe to say no plant based seafood products contain protein. Many do, ours is not, but that’s where we also say that it’s…

09:45 AW – And it also doesn’t have mercury in it. Things like these heavy metals that we find in dangerous levels at times in apex predators like tuna, right?

09:54 SCR – We talk about that a lot – that there is zero mercury. Yes, you’re right. There is mercury in wild capture. It’s bioaccumulated. And so since it’s higher on the food chain. The mercury is bioaccumulated at the top. It also doesn’t have environmental content like other environmental contaminants, mercury is 1, but also microplastics, and I know that that’s something that’s of increasing concern to folks that we’re finding microplastics and. Are literally everywhere.

10:21 SCR – The air we breathe and the seafood we eat. And so obviously that is an issue with wild capture tuna as well. And that is, you know, another benefit to the to the plant based as well as the cell cultured products.

10:33 (Music Break)

11:44 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Shannon Cosentino-Rouse. She is the Chief Strategy Officer for Finless Foods. So, Shannon, we were talking about your plant-based product. Where can people buy it? And it seems like it’s priced fairly comparably to premium sushi grade tuna, right?

12:05 SCR – Our plant-based tuna is priced comparably to what an operator would normally buy from their wild capture tuna. So I say, operator. What does that mean and how does it really display where we’re being showcased? We are selling into foodservice, so foodservice for those who are kind of new to the industry is when you sell in B2B business to business to the folks that serve you as consumers food. So for example, a restaurant or a fast casual like a Sweet Green or a Mixt Salad or etc. We sell to those operators and those operators menu are plant-based tuna and dishes. And so where can you find us? You can’t find us in retail. You can’t go to a sprouts or Whole Foods and find us on a shelf. And I always think that’s really important to note. Instead, you would find us at for example like Gracias Madre in San Francisco. Or there’s some there is some sushi locations in LA and they would be menuing our plant based tuna as. An item in their pokey bowl, for example, or their spicy tuna rolls. And so you would have a plant based option at those locations. We’ve actually seen a lot of success in a range of kind of operator segments, so one of which is colleges and universities. So our product is being carried at Stanford Law Schools, cafeteria, dining option. It’s being carried at Notre Dame. We’ve also seen a lot of success in sushi locations. So I was just in Austin and there are two sushi restaurants that are carrying our product and serving and traditional dishes. We’ve been launched since nearly a year ago in the end of May. And so in that last year, we’ve only scaled up more and more and you’ll see you’ll continue to see our plant based TuneIn more and more locations around the United States.

13:52 AW – You talked about the popularity of seafood earlier. I don’t remember the the stats, but you’re also mentioning your poké product. And just as a consumer of seafood, I’ve noticed just a huge proliferation of these pokey bowl stores all over the world. I imagine that the popularity of poké bowls has really contributed to the explosion of wild catch, seafood and some of the overfished areas that we have now in the oceans and this is part of the problem that you’re trying to address then. And if you have any stats on how the poké bowl industry has maybe shifted things.

14:29 SCR – I definitely don’t have stats in my back pocket around like the correlation between the rise of pokey specifically and tuna, but I will say that in the last 50 years, tuna populations have declined by 60%. And that demonstrates that the rise of global consumption of tuna, right, not just culturally, but it’s grown to the United States and Europe has is directly correlated to the decline and the pressure of fishing on tuna stocks. I think poké and sushi and the rise in popularity and even average suburban America really does tell that story very well, that instead of just being used in very traditional dishes or with communities that have culturally eaten tuna. It’s really just exploded in in mass interest. I think that demonstrates not only where we’ve been with tuna, but where we’re going to be going and that’s actually why finless started with the poke-style tuna in foodservice. You know, it’s definitely been something that we’ve had to educate operators around the fact that it’s raw and it’s not cookable and there’s a lot of questions around that process, but the reason we stayed committed to a pokey style raw application is because we ourselves saw that just increased demand for sushi and pokey and of those dishes very often, the top of those selected as tuna, and we ourselves were concerned that if tuna stalks are already in this very pressured state and we’re only continuing to eat more and more tuna and you can’t get it anywhere else. Besides wild capture, you can’t aquaculture it currently there’s  no other cell culture. Tuna is not approved yet. What does that mean for tuna stocks, especially going forward? And so that’s also the exact reason we have pioneered our cell cultured process on bluefin tuna. First, aiming to be another source that folks can access ingredients that they would use for their tuna dishes as a way to reduce pressure on the ocean.

16:28 AW – And maybe differentiate for consumers the difference between pole-line caught tuna and netted. If you have to go buy a canned tuna product, Shannon, what keywords are you looking for on the shelves?

16:42 SCR – Yeah, tuna is complicated. So for those of you just kind of not sure, my background is in international ocean law and policy. I always focused on fisheries and I always particularly focused on tuna, so Alex, your question is really, really apt. So there are various ways that tuna is caught – pole line is kind of what you think of it as a pole and a line and you’re catching one by one, one tuna by one tuna. The other ways are long line, which means there’s a long, literally a long line in the ocean stretched out with hooks separated at certain distances, and that type of fishing gear catches obviously tuna, but it also catches other by catch things that are attracted to at the end of the hook.

17:24 AW – And that usually that by-catch for our listeners ends up being thrown away usually. So it’s a real wasteful process generally.

17:31 SCR – And it’s also, I mean in addition to the waste, it’s also that you’re indiscriminate in what you catch. And so you actually catch threatened and endangered species, you catch things that really have like high, high year of reproductive rates – tuna don’t reproduce quickly. And so you catch things, for example like sharks, dolphins, sea birds, sea turtles, all the charismatic things that we also hear about, you know, being heavily affected by fisheries are the things you catch through longlining. Purse-seining is another type of fishing gear, which means you basically drive a boat in a circle and you’re dropping the net as you drive, which creates think of like a purse and the string cinches at the top, which makes it and then close net and you pull it up and you catch everything in the net now that means you do catch tuna and it’s a gear type used for kind of mass tuna catch. But you also in that type of gear, catch-by-catch and in the past the reason there’s been a lot of discussion around purse-seining is because that gear can be set around species that signal there tuna there. But it also means there can be casualties of those species. If I was buying tuna, that’s such a tough question because you often get told to ask for like, where it’s caught and how it’s caught. Some of the indicators for tuna, if you bought a canned are like MSC or different certification labels, Dolphin safe, etc. And there are definitely various brands that sell weight, sell, have the selling point being much more on sustainability, especially a lot of smaller companies and where specialty cans, in terms of whole cuts of tuna, at a sushi restaurant, it really comes down to asking where it was caught and understanding the management scheme, how it was caught. But the sad part is often folks won’t know the answers to those questions, and so you have to be a very informed consumer, carry things like your seafood watch and try and understand the fisheries. Especially the tuna fisheries that are better managed, but herein lies the problem. It is actually quite challenging to do that, and so that’s where we’re trying to just increase the overall sustainability of how tuna is produced.

19:54 (Music Break)

20:45 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Shannon Cosentino-Roush. She is the Chief Strategy Officer for Finless Foods. So Shannon, we mentioned in the outset that your company is developing currently a cell-based alternative seafood. I know that there are two cell-based companies that are producing chicken that has been FDA approved. You’re still waiting for that approval. When you do get the FDA approval for it, what can we expect from this product? It’s more than just getting a comparable amount of protein, isn’t it?

21:19 SCR – Yeah, so, so cultured, why don’t we start there? What actually is it? I know that it’s the words that are floated around folks have maybe heard cultivated me or lab grown or clean. One thing that there is plenty of names for it, right? We use cell culture for various reasons, but it all references the same technology, and the idea is how can you create animal protein without continual harvest of wild or animal agriculture. So the theory is you take or the science behind this is you take a sample of cells. From the animal, so that may be a tuna. It may be a cow and you take those cells, you feed them the nutrients that cells, even in our bodies, consume fats, amino acids, salts, sugars. You grow them out in in production facilities and specifically in devices like a bioreactor. You harvest them like you would any other animal product, you grow them out on something, we call it scaffolding, which is kind of like you think scaffolding on a building. It’s a structure that gives it the shape of what you’re trying to produce, whether it’s a sashimi or a steak, and then that product is ready for consumption. The goal between behind cell cultured or cell cultivated meat and seafood both is to be able to produce animal protein in a way that not only that does not rely on continual harvest, but also in a way that ideally can be done more sustainably than our current production methods. So using less arable land, having a better feed conversion ratio, ideally less energy intensive. And putting less pressure overall on the planet. The other positive of these industries is that you can produce products that have nutritional comparability, if not even more favorable nutrition. For example, with in the case of tuna not having environmental contaminants like mercury or plastic in the end product, and so that’s the overall goal. We’ve been undergoing regulatory for us in the US and also before and there has been two approvals. Well, there’s been I guess 3-1 in Singapore and then two, one of which was the same company in the US both of our of those products are cell cultured chicken. Those companies have been founded earlier than others and also chicken cell lines were largely way more researched. And, for example, seafood cell lines like tuna. And so we’re under in that process right now and we expect approval in the short not long term.

23:51 AW – And you’d be able to ideally replicate multiple types of fish, not just tuna. What we were talking about with your plant based seafood, correct?

23:59 SCR – 100% So basically anything you currently eat and maybe things you don’t like. For example, there recently was a cell cultured woolly mammoth meatball. Anything you currently eat, that’s animal protein could in theory be created in the cell culture process.

24:07 AW – Yes, I saw that.

24:13 SCR – So we’re focusing on tuna first for various reasons, both on the environmental strategy side is all and also in the business strategy. And for many of the reasons you just we just talked about today, but you know there are companies working on salmon, there are companies that have worked on mahi-mahi, Finless has been exploring many different species internally with our cell line research. And so the sky is the limit really of what you can produce.

24:36 AW – Let’s go to a ideal scenario, overcome any kind of barriers that you might have to deal with in your day-to-day workload there at Finless Foods, Shannon, and let’s just assume that you’ve got the products, you’ve got a full suite of seafood products that are sell based and people have accepted the idea. There’s just a huge demand for it. What would it take for Finless Foods and the entire industry of alternative seafood to kind of ramp up and scale to start to transition from fishing and overfishing our oceans to being able to get our seafood protein from labs? You talk about these bioreactors. Well, how big can they get in a perfect scenario, how fast can we ramp this up to scale?

25:26 SCR – Yeah, Alex, you are on the pulse because you’ve said the answer yourself – the answer is scale. So I think the main thing that this industry needs. To do is not just prove out the technology, not just get regulatory approval. Those are key important steps and we’ve been working on it to demonstrate that, but the bigger the bigger thing we need to unlock a scale and what that means is building commercial scale manufacturing facilities. So right now many, many, many of the companies in our industry have built out pilot facilities that basically proves out the technology gets you regulatory approval, allows you to produce. Let’s say regionally, a handful of locations, a handful of restaurants with a handful of production quantity. But to really start accessing that market and really being able to offset some of the supply to meet the demand, we need scale. So that would look like this industry building out commercial scale manufacturing facilities regionally. The great thing about this industry is that it’s geographically agnostic. You could build these facilities in the Midwest, you could build them in the Middle East, you could build them in Singapore. It no longer means you have to produce seafood from the coast or have fresh access to seafood on the coast. And the and to answer your question about the size of bioreactors, I almost think the sky’s the limit as well, and that right now this industry is using by our reactors that are very traditionally already used and produced in pharma. But one thing that’s really being explored is how do we design by our reactors specifically for this industry? They don’t need to be pharma grade, they can be food-safe and it can be at a scale in which it makes this industry more viable, and so there’s actually a lot of work being done in bioreactor design so there’s the current designs we have, but you’ll talk to many companies and they’ll say we’re trying to build a bioreactor X-fold – threefold, fourfold. And so I think really unlocking scale is where our industry is focusing the most time.

27:27 AW – And then the prices will come down, of course.

27:29 SCR – 100%, because once you have more manufacturing capacity, you can produce more and once you can produce more, you have economies of scale. All across your media like what? The ingredients you feed the cells, we often call media. You have media optimization, you have supply chain optimization, you have just the general supply and demand economics of being able to produce more and sell more, which means the prices can come down.

27:53 AW – She’s the Chief Strategy Officer for Finless Foods, Shannon Cosentino-Roush. Shannon, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 SCR – Thanks so much for having me.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Jon Sholle, Dave Matthews Band and Gregg Allman. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.