The Fish Story

When Media Comes Down With Necrotizing Fasciitis; Manmade Meat Moves From Laboratory to Memphis

By JAY MANN | Jul 18, 2018

Sorry, but I’m compelled to start this week’s column on a highly bacterial note. I’m hoping to rein in a media-spread strain of misinformation before it goes overly viral. It stems from a truly horrible still-unresolved necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) case involving a Millville man who contracted a near-fatal infection while crabbing marine waters in Cumberland County.

Technically, the crabber was most likely struck down by Vibrio vulnificus. When V. vulnificus works its way into a supportive human host, it kills in over half of all attacks. But I’m here to highly emphasize that supportive human host angle since full-blown V. vulnificus infections are incredibly rare.

Problematically, this New Jersey case all too quickly infected the national media. Why such a thing is so “sexy,” news-wise, is beyond me.

By my thinking, far too much blame was lain upon Jersey waters. Even state health officials joined in the media frenzy by issuing advisories about how to approach the state’s marine waters in such a way that any attacking V. vulnificus will be held at bay.

To be sure, you must be a bit crazy to ever walk barefooted upon any piece of bay bottom unless it has been prepared for human usage, as is the case with guarded bayside beaches. Admittedly, I’m among tons of unthinkingly traipsing folks who have had skin-penetrating meet-ups with jagged bay-bottom items, such as fragmented clam shells, busted bottles or decaying metal objects. Such bay bottom bites lead to countless gashes, gouges and stitches, many requiring emergency room resolution. But my about-to-be-made point is the chances of you coming down with festering, flesh-eating bacteria from Vibrio is absurdly small.

As to the roots of the bacteria, you’re initially not going to like what you hear. Vibrio bacteria are always lurking in the marine environment, by the katrillions, if there is such a number. They are the proverbial ubiquitous organisms. Adding to their distastefully large presence is Vibrio’s association with eating raw seafood, especially oysters. Cases of V. vulnificus disease related to the likes of sashimi and half-shell oysters have dramatically increased worldwide. The popularity of raw seafood is mostly to blame. That warned, the overall numbers of V. vulnificus cases are oddly and astronomically low considering the bacteria’s everywhereness.

At this point, I’m journalistically driven to bring up a local case of the most ferocious side of this bacteria. It attacked a surfcaster, many decades back. The Jersey angler contracted it after being bitten by a bluefish while night fishing. His fatal mistake was wrapping the wound in a “dirty rag” … and going to bed. As I heard it, he passed in under 24 hours.

But I’m here to defocus attention on such necrotizing fasciitis. So, onward to the part you should find far more soothing, namely, the way a healthy human body is almost astoundingly capable of fending off Vibrio. Deadly problems only arise when said human body isn’t in the best of shape, immunologically speaking. The infected crabber suffers from Parkinson disease, which compromises his immune system.

To foster further peace of mind, ponder this excerpt from a study published in the American Society for the Microbiology, titled “Vibrio vulnificus: Disease and Pathogenesis,” by Melissa K. Jones and James D. Oliver.

“Despite increases in the number of cases, the rate of infection remains relatively low. This contrasts with the ubiquity of this organism in marine habitats. At least part of the explanation for this difference is that V. vulnificus rarely causes severe disease in healthy individuals … individuals with compromised immune systems or chronic liver disease are up to 80 times more likely than healthy individuals to develop primary septicemia. However, in that such underlying conditions put between 12 million and 30 million Americans at risk for infection, the opportunistic nature of this pathogen alone cannot solely account for its low rate of infection.”

In case you didn’t get a feel for that last part, it’s actually a baffler as to why Vibrio seems so subdued, with so many immunologically-qualified folks being exposed to its various forms. It definitely seems the human body has antibody answers for shortening the life and times of attacking Vibrio. Of course, there is always the unslight matter of the most famed form of Vibrio, which takes few prisoners: cholera. But we won’t even go there in this case.

As I immersed myself in reading up on Vibrio, it wasn’t long before I came upon a freaky angle, a climate change angle.

Per the Jones and Oliver study, “Outbreaks of V. vulnificus disease in Israel are associated with record high temperatures. These data suggest that global climate change resulting in higher water temperatures may increase the frequency of V. vulnificus disease and influence the global distribution of this pathogen.”

I’ll re-repeat that you need not over sweat the Vibrio risk in our waters – even during summer’s heat, when the bacteria are blooming like mad. In fact, if you stand in shallow bay water, you can feel them bouncing off your feet. Come on, I gotta lighten this segment up a little.

CLEAN, LEAN AND SYNTHETICALLY MEATY: Imagine manmade lobster meat that’s better tasting than any New England lobster, yet costing chickenfeed. How about now-priced $45-per-pound endangered Chilean sea bass being made by hand, reaching the Caverswall bone china at maybe a buck a pound? For scallop fiends like myself, salivate over the thought of 6-inch-wide laboratory scallops, as succulent as you’ve ever forked, yet costing pennies a pop. For intensely altruistic types, envision feeding the planet’s 7.5 billion mouths with sumptuously meaty comestibles fresh from the factory – and so sanitized that food poisoning and other deadly forms of cross-contamination are vanquished. And, if you want to go utterly wild, visualize rhino horns so perfectly man-manufactured that a suddenly-rebounding population of rhinos will stand in line to trade in their nature-made horns for manmade models. All this takes some explaining – in a future-is-arriving-fast vein.

I’m herein touching on the eerie and rapidly developing world of what is momentarily being called “clean meat.” In highly condensed terms, it’s meat of many an ilk being grown, in-house, from only the finest stem cells of tasty creatures. Nary beast, fowl nor fish are harmed in the Petri dish process, short of having a syringe or two worth of stem cells sucked out. It has a huge fishing aspect.

I’ll call on Wiki to offer a mere glance into the meat of the matter.

“Cultured meat, also called clean meat, synthetic meat or in vitro meat, is meat grown from in vitro animals cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals.”

Admittedly, that Reader’s Digest read is like explaining the theory of relativity by saying it means that everything is relative. The science behind manmade stem cell meats, including seafoods, is both impressively and oppressively esoteric. You’ll need an alphabet of letters after your name to contemplate the deeper recesses of the process. It’s far easier to simply accept the process is very real … and happening. It’s arriving effects? It has been described as capable of changing the world … one mouth at a time.

SYNTH MEAT DADDIES: The concept of lab-made meat began with the late Wilem van Eelen, a Dutch entrepreneur and researcher. He was certain that real meat could be cultivated, in a lab-grown manner. While making great headway, the years forced him to pass the clean meat flame to understudy Mark Post, professor of tissue engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

To offer a slightly more in-depth glance at the cellular heart of synthetic meat production, offers a relatively understandable explanations of Post’s process.

“Post’s cultured meat creation process goes something like this: myosatellite cells, a kind of stem cell that repairs muscle tissue, are taken from a cow neck and put in containers along with fetal calf serum (the medium, which will eventually switch to a non-animal source). The cells are placed onto gel in a plastic dish, where the calf serum’s nutrients are reduced, triggering the cells to go into starvation mode and split into muscle cells. Those cells eventually merge into muscle fibers called myotubes and start synthesizing protein.”

When the factory-made tissues are squeezed together, they are cellularly the spittin’ image of the donor.

Fast-fooding ahead, Post wasted no time in bringing sizzling stem cells to table top. In 2013, he prepped to cook up the planet’s first clean meat, in-vitro, lab-grown, synthetic, stem-cell burger patty. He was already thinking about stem cell French fried potatoes as an eventual side dish.

Post’s first cellular burger raised both eyebrows and taste buds. An eye-opener was the tab. It costs roughly $350,000 to make, counting research costs.

Enter the billion-dollar (adjusted for inflation) question: Ze taste, boss, ze taste.

The ceremonial tasting of the very first stem cellular burger took place in London and was covered by Washington Post writer Marta Zaraska. She reported that first-bite honors went to burger-daddy Mark Post. He was followed by invited guests, Josh Schonwald, the American author of The Taste of Tomorrow, and Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutritional scientist.

Zaraska wrote, “The five-ounce burger patty … arrived under a silver dome and was promptly put onto a pan to sizzle with a dab of butter and a splash of sunflower oil. The smells that drifted off toward the audience (a few invited journalists and scientists) were subtle but unmistakably meaty … Both (Schonwald, Rützler) said the burger tasted ‘almost’ like a conventional one. No one spat the meat out; no one cringed.”

The main criticism was a certain lack of fattiness. Post agreed and assured that the addition of the highest and cleanest oils would fatten up the patties – and, in the process, make synth meats cleaner than artery-clogging nature-made varieties.

Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, has since tried clean meat versions of beef, duck, fish, foie gras and chorizo and said they “taste like meat because they are meat.”

Worldwide, seven meat manufacturers have gone, let’s say, stem cellular. One has even popped up in America. According to, “The company Memphis Meats announced it has developed chicken and duck meat from cultured cells of each bird.” In Europe, stem-cell sandwiches have been chalked onto menu boards.

In short order (subtle pun), the cost of man-manufactured meat burgers has fallen to within sensibility range. In Europe, clean meat patties are selling at under $10 a pop. They’ll likely appear in America by next year. The FDA has already said it sees no reason not to allow the creations to reach our markets.

So, is there a serious long-term market for such meaty synthetic edibles? Let’s just say the market is already hungrily poised, buttressed by the fact ready-to-try-anything Asians are enthusiastically eyeing the lab growing of their favorites, from beef to seafood. Another market exciter comes via the backer of that first six-figure lab-burger, none other than Google co-founder Sergey Brin. That definitely front-burners the clean meat matter.

As to the fishing impacts of manmade seafoods, commercial fishermen would likely reel from tons of synthetic seafood swimming on-scene. At the same time, the planet’s currently badly put-upon fisheries would, in perfect-world theory, resurge from a lack of harvesting pressure. The big gainers would seemingly be recreational fishermen, who would go hog wild with surging fish stocks out the wazoo.

Expectedly, many animal rights groups, marine mammal protection agencies and world health organizations are whole-heartedly backing no-kill, highly-sanitized meat “farming,” as one group has dubbed it.

The strangest synthetic meat fallout I came across – and I’m just obligatorily passing this on in the name of sheer weirdness – is the possibility of “cannibal patties,” served up at “cannibal parties.” Yep, humanly-harmless man-meat would be a breeze to mix up. I know … yuck! Hell, even hard-core goth folks be going, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Not to worry, that cannibalistic concept was derisively and satirically devised by a group already questioning the ethical and moral aspects of synth meat. And, indeed, stem cell meats will require certain ethical scrutiny at some point twixt lab and fork.

In departing this amazing and emerging meat matter, I must duly acknowledge that, long ago, when burger meat had four legs, Gene Roddenberry conjured up a strikingly similar synthetic foodstuff for the folks aboard the starship USS Enterprise. Imagine if Wilem van Eelen was a Trekkie … and first contemplated green meat during that one where Captain Kirk dates the hot green woman.

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