Labeling concerns arise as plant-based seafood analog market soars

Plant-based seafood analogs are quickly expanding across foodservice and retail channels as Americans and Britons welcome more protein alternatives into their diets.

Americans’ interest in plant-based foods is undeniable, with major restaurant chains like Burger King (with the Impossible Whopper) and Hardee’s (with its new breakfast offerings from Beyond Meat) catering to increasing consumer demand for alternative meats and proteins.

According to OpenTable, plant-based mentions on menus have soared 136 percent between 2017 and 2019. The retail sector in the U.S. has also seen a surge in plant-based buys, with sales of such products growing 20 percent in 2018, according to Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association.

Demand for plant-based seafood analogs is also high in the United Kingdom, where earlier this year, Linda McCartney Foods rolled out vegetarian Fish Goujons. Similarly, Heather Mills’ VBites is producing more than 540 vegetarian products, including Fish-Free Smoked Salmon Slices.

Atlantic Natural Foods, maker of TUNO plant-based seafood and numerous other plant-based foods, is expanding its products from 10,000 to 20,000 stores across North America, the U.K., Australia, and 17 other countries. In January, ANF will begin shipping TUNO to France, Belgium, Holland, and Scandinavia for the first time, as well as expanding “into deeper penetration in the U,S. and U.K. as major retailers begin to create more shelf-space for alternative proteins,” ANF Chairman and CEO J. Douglas Hines told SeafoodSource.

ALDI U.K. is carrying TUNO and, in January, ALDI U.S. stores will debut a variety pack of ANF’s Loma Linda brand meals, including Chipotle Bowl, Taco Filling, and Pad Thai made with Konjac noodles.

Hines revealed that Loma Linda is also adding new plant-based seafood products in 2020 “under a number of new formats, as well as flavors.”

Similarly, Good Catch’s plant-based seafood products, already distributed in 4,000 stores in the U.S., will expand to more stores in the U.S. and will launch in the U.K. in early 2020. The Gathered Foods’ brand will open a new facility in Heath, Ohio in March 2020 to meet the increasing consumer demand for plant-based food, Good Catch CEO Chris Kerr told SeafoodSource.

In late October, the Van Cleve Seafood Co. became the first U.S. seafood supplier to launch a plant-based seafood line: Wild.Skinny.Clean., which includes Crab-less Cake and Plant-based Pink Shrimp.

“It [plant-based foods] is exploding; it is not a trend or a fad, it is the future and the future is now,” Van Cleve Seafood Co-owner and Vice President of Product Development Shelley Van Cleave told SeafoodSource.

Since its launch, Van Cleve has received significant interest in the line, “from the largest seafood companies ordering our products to venture capitalists interested in investing to grocery chains, high-end wholesalers, and theme parks wanting to offer our products to their customers,” Van Cleve Seafood Co-Founder and CEO Monica Van Cleve-Talbert told SeafoodSource.

“From California to Canada, the U.K., Russia, the Middle East, and Denmark – the response has been on a global scale,” she added.

In addition, Shelley Van Cleave and Monica Van Cleve-Talbert spoke at the TedWomen 2019 conference this fall, “where hundreds of attendees welcomed and were extremely excited about our plant-based seafood,” Van Cleve-Talbert said.

While plant-based seafood analog products are “innovative and meet the needs of some consumers – and can be part of an effort to feed a growing planet,” they should not be labeled “plant-based seafood” or “vegan seafood” because they do not actually contain seafood, NFI Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons told SeafoodSource.

A statement of identity on U.S. food labels conveys what is in the package, Gibbons explained.

“So many of the plant-based imitation seafood products we see on the market fail this test. Often times they describe what is not in the package. For example ‘vegan shrimp’ contains no shrimp, [so] placing the word ‘vegan' in front of a product that contains no shrimp is telling the consumers what’s not in the package as opposed to describing a plant-based product that is attempting to imitate shrimp,” Gibbons said. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Compliance Policy Guide (540.700 - Labeling of Processed and Blended Seafood Products Made Primarily with Fish Protein) states that the seafood product surimi “resembles a specific type of seafood, including its shape, form, or color,” in this case crab and, “must be labeled as imitation.”

“This regulation is already on the books and enforced. Surimi is a product that is actually based on fish protein yet must be labeled ‘imitation’,” Gibbons said. “At the very least, these plant-based amalgamations should be clearly labeled as imitation.” 

At the same time, NFI is “not interested” in an adversarial relationship with plant-based seafood analog suppliers.

“We just want them labeled accurately so they’re following the rules that real seafood already follows and consumers know what they’re getting,” Gibbons said. 

As expected, plant-based seafood analog sellers disagree with NFI’s labeling stance.

The term “plant-based” already infers that a product is derived from plants and not animal meat, Van Cleve-Talbert explained.

“KFC is selling ‘Plant-Based Chicken’, not ‘Imitation Chicken.’ Beyond Meat states that they sell "Plant-Based Meat,’ not ‘Imitation Meat.’ Attitudes like this really solidify the fact that the seafood industry is stuck in time. We will never attract and retain young and innovative talent if they continue to resist big ideas that are tackling issues that consumers care so much about: health, sustainability, and how we feed future global populations. Plant-based seafood deserves to be part of this conversation,” Van Cleve-Talbert said.

Good Catch’s products are all clearly labeled as fish-free and vegan, and are designed to be substitutes for conventional tuna, crab, and whitefish, Kerr said.

“All these words (seafood, tuna, crab, whitefish) are used to describe our plant-based products. The FDA’s Compliance Policy Guidelines for Labeling Processed and Blended Seafood Products Made Primarily with Fish Protein states that it is to be used as guidance, and that it ‘does not establish legally enforceable responsibilities,’” Kerr said.

Photo courtesy of the Van Cleve Seafood Co.


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