Albertsons phases out eel; Ocean Hugger launches plant-based alternative

Albertsons Companies, which operates more than 2,000 grocery stores in the United States, has completely phased out freshwater eel (unagi) from its sushi products.

Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons, which operates Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, and a number of other banners, said in a press release that the phase-out comes three-and-a-half years ahead of its self-imposed deadline of year-end 2022.

In 2018, Albertsons pledged to sales of wild eel products, saying their populations are in “dangerous decline and the process of raising farmed eel is equally unsustainable for the species and the oceans,” according to Albertsons.

“While our customers enjoy unagi, they expect us to do the right thing when it comes to the long-term health of a species and our oceans,” Lori Dupre, Albertsons director of merchandising operations for deli and prepared food, said. “We commend our sushi vendor partners for their role in helping us reach this sustainability goal.”

The decision to remove eel from its sushi offerings was made after exploring all possible options, according to the retailer. 

“Farmed eel is among the lowest-scoring farmed species rated by Seafood Watch, in part because eel farms rely on wild, endangered eels to stock their ponds and because freshwater eel farms can spread disease and pollution,” Albertsons said. “High demand for eel has also created a global black market for poaching and smuggling of eel, which also violates the company’s responsible seafood policy.”

The move is part of Albertsons’ "Top 5 by 2022 Sushi Commitment,” a corporate pledge to ensure its most popular seafood used in its prepared sushi is sourced using sustainable options.

“The commitment, which was announced just 17 months ago, laid out plans to eliminate unagi and transition tuna, farmed salmon, species of whitefish used for surimi (imitation crab), and farmed shrimp to responsible sources by the end of 2022,” Albertsons said.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, the company will work closely with FishWise and its sushi vendors to transition shrimp, salmon, surimi, and tuna to all responsible sources, according to Albertsons.

In related news, a plant-based eel alternative for sushi was launched at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Illinois, last month. Ocean Hugger Foods debuted Unami, its plant-based alternative to eel, at the NRA Show, a year after launching its tomato-based tuna sashimi, Ahimi, at Seafood Expo North America.

The main ingredient in Unami is eggplant, according to the company. The vegetable’s texture is changed to resemble that of unagi using Ocean Hugger’s patent-pending process. It is then marinated in gluten-free soy sauce, mirin, and algae oil, which the company said infuses it with a rich umami flavor. 

“The result is a ready-to-use product great for sushi and rice bowls, as well as more innovative dishes like Japanese-style pizzas and tacos,” Ocean Hugger said.

Unami is vegan, non-GMO and gluten-free. Because it’s plant-based, it does not contribute to the demise of freshwater eel, which have been in serious decline over the past 30 years and which are rated ‘Avoid’ on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. 

Ocean Hugger CEO David Benzaquen said U.S. customers are moving toward adopting more plant-based diets.

“Over half of consumers are trying to eat more plant-based protein for both environmental and health reasons,” Benzaquen said. “Our plant-based products are a delicious alternative not only for vegans and vegetarians but also anyone concerned with the impact their food choices have on the environment.”

Ocean Hugger Foods is also a carrot-based salmon alternative it calls Sakimi.

Photo courtesy of Ocean Hugger Foods


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