Forty years ago, a bearded mol­lusc be­came one of our first com­mer­cial “su­per­foods”. Joanna Wane meets the mus­sel man.

North & South - - In This Issue -

Forty years ago, a bearded mol­lusc be­came one of our first com­mer­cial “su­per­foods”. Joanna Wane meets the mus­sel man.

When re­searchers in the US be­gan scour­ing the world in the 1960s for marine life with po­ten­tial as a cancer ther­apy, tests on New Zealand green-lipped mus­sels failed to show any anti-car­cino­genic qual­i­ties at all. But what the lab anal­y­sis did find in Perna canalicu­lus, a na­tive species found only in our waters, was sig­nif­i­cant anti-in­flam­ma­tory ac­tiv­ity.

By 1974, Auck­land com­pany Mcfar­lane Lab­o­ra­to­ries had de­vel­oped a com­mer­cial freezedried pow­der ex­tract, us­ing shell­fish har­vested from its green-lipped mus­sel farms off Wai­heke Is­land. By the mid-80s, Seatone was be­ing ex­ported to more than 25 coun­tries, backed by a ma­jor clin­i­cal study in Scot­land that gave it the tick as an ef­fec­tive ther­apy for both rheuma­toid arthri­tis and os­teoarthri­tis.

To­day, the New Zealand Trade and En­ter­prise website de­scribes green-lipped mus­sel ex­tract as “one of the most ef­fec­tive nat­u­ral an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory and joint mo­bil­ity sup­ple­ments avail­able” and dozens of prod­ucts (of vary­ing qual­ity) are now on the mar­ket world­wide. It’s also a pop­u­lar in­gre­di­ent in ve­teri­nary prod­ucts, used to re­lieve ev­ery­thing from de­gen­er­a­tive joint dis­ease in dogs to fet­lock lame­ness in horses with os­teoarthri­tis. At Auck­land Zoo, Kashin the ele­phant was pre­scribed a course for chronic arthri­tis in her later years.

When green-lipped mus­sels first hit the head­lines, rules around prod­uct claims were much looser than they are to­day. Marine sci­en­tist John Croft, who helped set up Mcfar­lane’s mus­sel farms and later be­came the com­pany’s re­search di­rec­tor, re­mem­bers Seatone (later re­branded as Bi­olane Seatone) be­ing launched as a novel health food farmed from the sea to treat arthri­tis. “We’d be in jail if we said that now,” he says.

But Croft – who be­came known in­ter­na­tion­ally as “the mus­sel man” – has no doubts about the mol­lusc’s ben­e­fi­cial pow­ers, through its abil­ity to in­hibit the de­gen­er­a­tive en­zyme pro­cesses that take place in our joint tis­sue and bones. That’s why Maori, whose tra­di­tional diet was heavy on shell­fish, used to have such a low in­ci­dence of arthri­tis, he says. “But you have to eat them raw.”

An in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tant since the 1980s, he still works with com­pa­nies to de­velop nat­u­ral health prod­ucts that are ef­fec­tive but don’t have the side ef­fects of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs. His lat­est is a top­i­cal anti-in­flam­ma­tory gel made

from green-lipped mus­sel ex­tract and un­daria sea­weed. “In fu­ture years, many more valu­able prod­ucts that will treat some of our most de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­eases will come from the seas and oceans,” he writes in his book, Arthri­tis and Ag­ing: A So­lu­tion from the Sea, pub­lished in 2015.

Orig­i­nally from the UK, Croft grew up in a small fish­ing vil­lage in Lan­cashire and was a tanker cap­tain be­fore be­ing em­ployed as a pol­lu­tion of­fi­cer to in­ves­ti­gate the im­pact on com­mer­cial marine species. In 1972, he put him­self, his wife, their teenage daugh­ter and Vaux­hall Viva car on a ship to New Zealand, af­ter ac­cept­ing a po­si­tion with the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries – only to be told on ar­riv­ing in Auck­land that he was out of a job, be­cause the lab he’d been hired to run was no longer go­ing ahead.

Af­ter stints work­ing as a deck­hand and truck driver, he was taken on by Mcfar­lane’s (later bought by Healtheries, which then be­came part of Vi­taco) to es­tab­lish their mus­sel farms and a hatch­ery for re­search.

Still renowned as an ex­pert in the field, Croft was last year on standby to fly to the United States as a wit­ness for a com­pany that uses New Zealand green-lipped mus­sel ex­tract in some of its pet prod­ucts, and was be­ing sued by a multi­na­tional that claimed to own the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights. Croft pro­vided ev­i­dence that the ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit of green-lipped mus­sels was “prior knowl­edge” and the case was with­drawn.

At 84, Croft de­scribes him­self as “still fit as a buck rat”. The only med­i­ca­tion he’s taken in years was a blood-thin­ning agent, af­ter he broke his an­kle re­cently mov­ing bul­locks on his two-hectare life­style block.

He’s been tak­ing green-lipped mus­sel ex­tract – the prod­uct he helped in­vent more than four decades ago – for the past 18 years, since he be­gan suf­fer­ing from age-re­lated de­gen­er­a­tion in his joints. Now pain-free, he reck­ons he’s hold­ing the con­di­tion at bay. “That’s the biggest mar­ket: qual­ity of life for age­ing peo­ple,” he says. “Some of it’s ge­netic, some of it’s good diet. But my doc­tor said his prac­tice would be de­funct if ev­ery­one was like me.” +

A New Zealand green-lipped mus­sel.

John Croft

Below: A feast from the sea – but New Zealand green-lipped mus­sels lose their anti-in­flam­ma­tory prop­er­ties when they’re cooked.

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