Thai Union’s investment in research paying dividends

Published on
March 20, 2018

Thai Union’s multimillion-dollar, multi-year investment in research and development is beginning to pay off.

Launched in 2015 and funded with a THB 600 million (USD 19.2 million, EUR 15.6 million) investment, the company Global Innovation Incubator (Gii) was designed with the explicit goal of designing new products, processes, and technologies intended to boost the company’s bottom line. The company expects a big return on its investment – with its stated goal of having products and services originating from the Gii creating 10 percent of Thai Union's top-line revenue by the year 2020.

“The Gii is core business strategy,” Thai Union President and CEO Thiraphong Chansiri said in 2016. “We believe that innovation will contribute to our business growth and help us achieve our USD 8 billion (EUR 7.03 billion) target by 2020. Innovation will further our competitiveness, differentiation and capacity in the world food industry.”

On 11 March, at the 2018 Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., the Gii landed Thai Union its first big prize. The company won the 2018 Seafood Excellence Award for Best New Foodservice Product for its Yellowfin Tuna Slices, which were created and developed over the past two years at the incubator. The sliceable tuna product was chosen as the competition’s winner by a panel of seafood experts on the basis of uniqueness and appropriateness to the market, taste, packaging, market potential, convenience, nutritional value, and originality.

The Yellowfin Tuna Slices were the result of an innovative technological advancement and significant market research done at the Gii, Thai Union Global Innovation Director Tunyawat Kasemsuwan told SeafoodSource at the expo. As part of his role, Kasemsuwan serves as manager of the incubator.

“It’s a result of our competence from the macro- to the micro-level,” Kasemsuwan said.

Over the past several years, the Gii developed a now-patented technique it calls “high-pressure processing,” or HPP, for adding value to its tuna products. To create the tuna slices, the company puts a full tuna loin through HPP, which cooks the tuna and imbues it with the company’s desired flavor profile, then slices and freezes it.

“We started developing HPP almost four years ago,” Kasemsuwan said. “It’s so new, we had to go through all the legal channels to patent it.”

The product’s very newness has hindered those efforts, causing a few regulatory hurdles as the legal authorities in various countries around the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, determined how to classify it.

“We have spent a huge amount on regulatory consultants, food safety consultants, and other expenses relating to getting the product approved,” Kasemsuwan said. “We know it’s safe, but [the authorities] check everything, and even that is still not sufficient.”

Despite the difficulties, Thai Union, through its Chicken of the Sea subsidiary, is now marketing the Yellowfin Tuna Slices to foodservice operators across the U.S. Initially, it is being sold in two flavors, Black Pepper and Cajun. The product is sold frozen in two-pound packages with 32, 1-ounce yellowfin tuna slices per pack, for USD 6.50 (EUR 5.27) per pound wholesale, on average.

The Yellowfin Tuna Slices are a healthier, convenient alternative to traditional luncheon meats for sandwiches, salads, and wraps, Chicken of the Sea National Foodservice Sales Manager Denny Fitzgerald told SeafoodSource.

“I don’t want to compare it to ham or turkey, but it can be used like that on wrap or roll. You can even use it as a sushi roll,” he said. “Its beauty is it’s a blank canvas. It’s very easy to work with.”

The company chose yellowfin tuna due both to its favorable pricing compared to albacore tuna, and because it is “overall very consistent flavor-wise,” Fitzgerald said.

“It has a pretty neutral flavor profile, so it works well with the fact that in the U.S., we don’t like our fish fishy,” he said.

Fitzgerald said that foodservice operators are catching on to the product’s potential slowly but surely.

“We can’t just send it to a restaurant chain; [We] have to show them how they can use the product, because they don’t know what to do with it at first. But once we start showing them, their minds start clicking,” he said. “Our goal is to get the product started and accepted in the marketplace; we think people want innovation, and that once we get a few trendsetters to adopt it, everyone else will come along.”

Thai Union Group Director of Global Foodservice and Culinary Development Scott Solar said his firm did years of research – done through the Gii – on what customers were looking for as they moved along in the development of the Yellowfin Tuna Slices.

“The award is part of a larger wave of feedback that suggests that Americans are ready for a change in their lunch routine,” Solar said.

Greater sustainability bona fides also scored as important in Thai Union’s customer research, Solar said. They’re also company policy; the tuna used to make them meets the company’s Sea Change sourcing guidelines, and the Yellowfin Tuna Slices are expected to receive Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, Solar added.

With the Yellowfin Tuna Slices launched and making a splash, the Gii has already turned its attention to its next projects. The Gii is now working at enhancing processing techniques for tuna sausage, with the goal of creating a nutritious sausage with only one percent fat. And the incubator is also developing marine ingredients that maximize use of raw materials to create human nutrients – such as nutraceuticals from highly refined tuna oil with omega-3 DHA, CEO Thiraphong Chansiri announced in December 2017 at the company’s 40th anniversary exhibition in Bangkok, Thailand.

“We’re very committed to invest in innovation," Chansiri said. “It will help us deliver what consumers want now and what they will want, and need, in the future.”

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