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'Forever chemicals’ in fish are a health and security problem. Can cultivated alternatives solve it?

A person has his back turned as he fishes in a black fisherman's hat and a black hoodie.
Image credit: Unpslash

Do you know where your seafood comes from and how safe it is?

A new study to be published in the March 2023 issue of the journal Environmental Research found that locally caught freshwater fish across the United States are likely a significant source of dangerously high levels of PFOS.

Short for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, this toxic, synthetic “forever chemical” was phased out by the federal government, and while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes that eating locally caught freshwater fish is a significant source of exposure to PFOS, there are no current federal policies or regulations providing guidance on fish consumption specific to this or any other forever chemical known as PFAS.

These PFAS contaminate everything from drinking water to food to personal care products. When more than 200 million Americans could be drinking water contaminated with PFAS, the chemicals are found in the blood of virtuallty everyone from adults to newborn babies. Even in low doses, PFAS linked to increased risks of certain cancers, immune system suppression, reduced vaccine efficacy, reproductive issues, and more.

While 70-85% of U.S. seafood is imported, the value of domestic marine and freshwater aquaculture is $1.5 billion a year, with the majority brought in by freshwater fish and shrimp. Thus while most of our seafood may come from places across the world, a large enough chunk is caught right here in the states. It is caught mostly by communities that rely on it.

The study was led by researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a coalition of advocates and scientists working to protect public health. The researchers analyzed data from more than 500 samples of fish fillets collected by the EPA, National Rivers and Streams Assessment, and the Great Lakes Human Health Fish Fillet Tissue Study.

What they found was startling: eating just one freshwater fish is equal to a month of drinking these forever chemicals, discharged into the nation’s waters by what EWG estimates are nearly 42,000 industrial polluters. These polluters include municipal landfills, airports, wastewater treatment plants, and manufacturing facilities.

According to the paper’s co-author Tasha Stoiber “PFAS do not disappear when products are thrown or flushed away.” EWG’s research shows that the most common disposal methods like incineration and landfilling may end up leading to even further environmental pollution, Stoiber said in a statement.

All 42,000 suspected polluters can be seen on this interactive map, which mirrors EWG’s map of PFAS found in American freshwater fish species across our rivers, streams, and Great Lakes.

This includes the white perch of Lake Erie, flathead catfish in the Mississippi River, largemouth bass in the San Francisco Bay, Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan, and smallmouth bass off the coast of New Jersey.

“For decades, polluters have dumped as much PFAS as they wanted into our rivers, streams, lakes, and bays with impunity. We must turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from industrial discharges, which affect more and more Americans every day,” EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber said in a statement.

According to the group, this is a “textbook case of environmental injustice.”

As the study points out, in the U.S. there are an estimated 17.6 million high-frequency adult consumers of fish. These consumers eat at least one fish meal a week and source as much as 90% of their fish locally, a stark contrast from the many Americans who do not eat any locally caught fish.

The majority of this consumption is attributed to low-income populations who harvest fish as a food staple, and certain Black populations with high catfish subsistence fishing and consumption. These freshwater fish are an important source of protein for consumers who cannot afford to purchase commercial seafood. They depend on fish for sustenance and for traditional cultural practices, EWG said in its report.

The researchers emphasize that regulations need to be in place on the pollution level. In the past, fish advisories ushered in unintended cultural, social, and health implications for Native communities that have depended on local fish for generations. Indigenous peoples living on the world’s coast consume 15 times more seafood per capita than people in other parts of the world. As climate change hits Indigenous fisheries the hardest, identifying these sources of PFAS exposure is an urgent public health issue so their fisheries are not crippled further.

While the overall consumption of local freshwater fish in the U.S. is low, the survival of many often depends on eating and selling the freshwater fish they’ve caught.

Aside from necessary regulation, researchers are increasingly asking: can "smart food" or lab-grown meat be used to combat food insecurity, shortages, and other challenges to our food systems?

According to UNICEF, a more integrated food system could help combat food insecurity, and as reported by the investment banking management firm Credit Suisse, alternative proteins like lab-grown meat may play a role in improving food security.

In addition to the environmental and ethical benefits of lab-grown or cell-cultured meat, The Guardian reports that if it can be scaled, the economic and political benefits will be significant.

One case study is Singapore, where in 2020, the startup Eat Just received the first regulatory approval in the world to sell its lab-grown chicken nuggets.

This year the company will open the largest lab-grown meat facility in Asia and by 2027, Eat Just is expected to reach price parity with conventional meat. Even more interesting, Singapore is providing substantial funds for research and development of similar companies because the small city-state hopes lab-grown meat can help combat food insecurity and ensure they meet their 30-by-30 policy goal, which states that they provide 30% of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030. This can not be achieved by their agricultural farms alone, The Guardian reports.

Cell-cultured fish, specifically, exists in Singapore’s 30-by-30 plan and because of climate-driven threats to their food supply, the government is researching lab-grown shrimp to combat its food crisis.

On top of that, the problem of PFAS in fish is not limited to the U.S. Research shows the same issue in Asia, South and North America, Africa, Australia, and in lower concentrations, Europe.

In Singapore, as overfishing collides with issues like food insecurity, population growth, water pollution, emission rates, and the climate crisis, Singaporean scientists are turning to lab-grown shrimp, lobster meat, fish, and other shellfish to maintain Asia’s seafood-centered diet. As Fortune puts it, Singapore is attempting food security all without livestock.

Could the same be done in the States?

In November, cultivated chicken producer, Upside Foods, received lab-grown meat’s first seal of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FPA). Research also indicates that lab-grown meat has the potential to be safer than conventionally farmed meat since it doesn’t involve animals that can spread diseases or fish swimming around in polluted waters.

A handful of startups are at the forefront of cell-cultured fish in the U.S. including FootPrint Coalition-backed WildType, which is committed to “building a better food system” with its sushi-grade salmon. According to the San Franciso-based startup, the salmon does not include the “microplastics, mercury, parasites, and other toxins commonly found in seafood today,” which as Nature reports, are credible threats to public health.

Another is San Diego startup BlueNalu which is making Pacific bluefin tuna grown in a tank rather than in the Pacific Ocean. Also based in California is Finless Foods, using both plant and cell-culture technology to make a more sustainable tuna.

Of course in order to combat the world’s issues, lab-grown meat must reach affordability. Startups like Future Meat are showing that affordability is possible, driving their $18 chicken breast down $7.50 and eventually $1.70. In 2021, a life cycle analysis by researchers at the Dutch consultancy CE Delft predicted that by 2030, cultured beef will be more affordable than conventional beef.

There is skepticism about if lab-grown fish can reach the same price parity that beef and chicken are projected to, as well as make a difference in fisheries and ocean conversation.

Of course, as EWG makes clear regulation around PFAS pollution is what is needed to ensure the resiliency of fishing communities, safety in fish consumption, and maintain cultural fishing practices. But as Singapore is showing, cell culture may also play a significant role in adapting to changing food systems.


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