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First, there was the meatless burger. Soon there may be fishless fish.

Impossible Foods, the California company behind the meatless Impossible Whopper now available at Burger King, is joining a crowded field of food companies developing alternatives to traditional seafood with plant-based recipes or laboratory techniques that allow scientists to grow fish from cells.

So far, much of Impossible's work has focused on the biochemistry of fish flavor, which can be reproduced using heme, the same protein undergirding its meat formula, according to Pat Brown, the company's chief executive. In June, Impossible's 124-person research and development team, which the company plans to increase to around 200 by the end of next year, produced an anchovy-flavored broth made from plants, he said.

"It was being used to make paella," Brown said. "But you could use it to make Caesar dressing or something like that."

The fishless-fish project is part of Impossible's grand ambitions to devise tasty replacements for every animal-based food on the market by 2035. Whether that aim is achievable, either scientifically or financially, remains to be seen. But for now, Brown said, he's confident Impossible's plant-based beef recipe can be reconfigured to simulate a new source of protein.

It's unclear whether consumers -- even those who eat meatless burgers -- will embrace fish alternatives. Those faux-beef products owe their success partly to the enthusiasm of so-called flexitarians, people who want to reduce their meat consumption without fully converting to vegetarianism, but flexitarians are not necessarily motivated by a desire to save the planet. Indeed, industry experts say, many of them are drawn to plant-based meat products more for its perceived health benefits than for their role in reducing the food industry's reliance on production techniques that release greenhouse gases.

"A lot of people will simply say if you eat meat, you're increasing your risk of cancer," said Tom Rees, who studies the packaged food industry for the market research firm Euromonitor International. "There isn't an equivalent of that for fish."

Proponents of plant-based fish products describe the project as an environmental imperative. While billions of people across the world depend on seafood as their main source of protein, the world's marine fish stocks are 90% depleted, primarily because of overfishing, according to the World Economic Forum.

"The commercial fishing industry is strip mining oceans and destroying aquatic ecosystems in a way that makes the plundering of the Amazon rain forest seem like small potatoes," said Bruce Friedrich, who runs the Good Food Institute, an organization that advocates alternatives to meat and fish.

Brown called the depletion of fish populations "an ongoing meltdown" that world leaders lacked the political will to stop. One widespread strategy to combat the problem -- aquaculture, or the breeding of fish on commercial farms -- has its own environmental consequences, including pollution.

"With respect to the urgency of the environmental impact, fish are second to cows, followed by other animals," Brown said. "That's how I view it and that factors into how we think about priority."

Leigh Habegger, executive director for the Seafood Harvesters of America, an industry group, disputed Brown's analysis of the commercial fishing business, arguing that American fishing companies have made great strides in improving the sustainability of the industry.

"Eating wild-caught, American seafood should be an easy choice," Habegger said. "When consumers purchase seafood harvested in their waters, they're supporting coastal communities and small businesses, and there's no question as to the health and sustainability of that seafood."

Still, Impossible Foods is not the only company developing fishless fish. Good Catch, another specialist in plant-based food, recently started a line of fish-free tuna, which is available at Whole Foods.

Brown, the Impossible Foods chief executive, acknowledged that "consumers aren't crying out for plant-based fish." But he predicted that would change if Impossible released fish products that mimicked the taste and texture of the real thing.

"The only way we can succeed," he said, "is to make fish from plants that is more delicious than the fish that's strip mined from the ocean."

Until they tasted beef-free beef, he added, customers "weren't crying out for plant-based burgers, either."

SundayMonday Business on 07/14/2019

Print Headline: Plan is to put fish-free fish on the menu

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