Seafood alternatives continue to gain momentum in retail and foodservice

Published on
March 1, 2021

The leaders of Gathered Foods, BlueNalu, and AquaBounty are each predicting a big year for their respective companies.

Speaking at the 2021 Global Seafood Marketing Conference, which took place virtually last month, Gathered Foods CEO Christine Tsai, BlueNalu CEO Lou Cooperhouse, and AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf agreed the U.S. market is warming up to alternative proteins.

Tsai, whose company markets plant-based seafood analogs under the Good Catch brand, said consumers “are now more accepting new ways to have protein.”

“Our consumers are what we would call the ‘millennial flexitarian’ … someone looking to reduce meat in their diet,” she said. “They’re food explorers – adventurous, experiential foodies, who are seeking out new varieties and experiences in their meals. They’re health-conscious focused on natural and sustainable foods, and interesting for us…they’re also willing to pay a little bit more for that experience. Plant-based eating, because it’s not so mainstream, does command a bit of a premium at the moment.”

Two other factors driving the upsurge in popularity around plant-based foods are transparency and environmentalism, Tsai said.

“This particular generation of millennial flexitarians is wanting to know the source of your foods and their ingredients, and expecting a high quality,” she said. “And this particular generation very altruistic and they are seeking as a destination point experiences with food that are mission-based.”

Good Catch’s shelf-stable and frozen products are made from a blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans, and navy beans. On 25 February, Gathered Foods announced it will be partnering with quick-service restaurant chain Bareburger to launch two burgers made with Good Catch’s Plant-Based Classic Fish Burger product, to be available through mid-March as limited-time offerings at two of Bareburger’s New York City locations. In October 2020, the brand partnered with 100 percent plant-based restaurant Veggie Grill for an exclusive tuna melt, and in January 2021, Good Catch announced a partnership with Whole Foods Market on a plant-based deli-style tuna salad, now available in the grocery chain’s prepared foods section across 10 states.

Good Catch has plans to continue an “aggressive foodservice expansion” through 2021, according to Tsai, who said she views foodservice placements as “outreach” for the brand’s frozen products, which include New England Style Plant-Based Crab Cakes, Thai Style Plant-Based Fish Cakes, and its fishless Fish Burgers, each of which retail for USD 5.99 (EUR 5.29).

“This is how you teach a consumer what it’s supposed to taste like if they’ve never seen it before. It’s about building that sensory profile and that experience,” she said. “Unfortunately, in the first quarter of 2020, we were thrown a little bit of a curveball [with COVID-19] and those vehicles were closed to us. And so we did have to pivot, and part of that is how do you provide that experience in a unique kind of way with relatively little ability to talk to customers – through retail. And what we found was that retailers are actually very open to providing this experience because it is new, but also there have been proven benefits from alternative proteins.”

Gathered Food’s distribution deal with Bumble Bee, signed in March 2020, provided Good Catch “a unique foray into the seafood aisle,” Tsai said.

“[Alternative proteins] don’t always have to replace [seafood],” she said. “But it’s certainly there to provide choice.”

For Cooperhouse, who co-founded BlueNalu in 2017, his company’s success will come as there is greater recognition that “we just cannot feed the world in the future [without] … supplementing wild-caught and farm-raised [seafood] with new solutions.”

BlueNalu will have its lab-grown mahi product – created via a process where living cells are isolated from fish tissue, placed into culture media for proliferation, and then assembled into final products – available for purchase by the public later in 2021, followed by its launch of bluefin tuna products.

“We’re not so far away from a new sustainable solution for a wide array of seafood product that have all the health and nutritional benefits of seafood but without any potential mercury or environmental challenges that may be contained in the seafood we enjoy,” he said.

BlueNalu’s so-called “cellular aquaculture” technology can be used with other species and the company is currently developing yellowtail, mahi, and red snapper, in addition to tuna.

“We really have a playbook that can be customized around the world. We can introduce species that were historically never available in a certain area,” Cooperhouse said. “We can literally be producing seafood that is on watch-lists or is no longer available, or really complement the supply chain with species so that we can enjoy them even more. It creates a level of flexibility that never existed before.”

Cooperhouse said while BlueNalu is based in San Diego, California, U.S.A., he views it more as a global company.

“From the birth of BlueNalu, our whole objective was all about scaled production and global presence,” he said. “We are committed to developing infrastructure over time where we can run factories around the world.”

BlueNalu is looking for partnerships with established seafood industry names to bring its products to consumers “in a brand that they know and trust,” Cooperhouse said. It’s also looking into foodservice and direct-to-consumer opportunities in the U.S. market, and is studying international markets to determine the best approach for its products abroad, he said.

One of the biggest obstacles the company faces is nomenclature, Cooperhouse said. With consumers unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with BlueNalu’s technological processes for creating its products, it conducted market research to determine the best terms for how to describe itself. Eventually, it landed on “cell-based,” relying on consumers’ familiarity and broad acceptance of “plant-based” products.

Cooperhouse described BlueNalu’s products and processes as transformative for the seafood industry.

“We literally manufactured seafood in a new way,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to create a whole new supply chain solution.”

At AquaBounty, which produces genetically engineered, fast-growing salmon under the AquAdvantage brand, company CEO Sylvia Wulf said the mission is to get make salmon – considered a premium protein – more accessible and affordable for U.S. consumers. With the United States importing more than 400,000 metric tons of farmed Atlantic salmon every year, the company is seeking to reduce the country’s seafood trade deficit and the carbon footprint by replacing imports with domestically produced salmon, Wulf said.

“We believe this is a complementary technology to wild and farmed salmon. What will happen is consumption and production will shift around to meet that demand,” Wulf said. “The real benefit is, you’re now locating production close to consumption, so you can have a much different eating experience because of the freshness of the product. We’re 24 hours from a lot of our major markets, so we catch it, process it, and get it to markets. We think that’s going to make a big difference because the eating experience is so much what is going to drive increased demand.”

The company hit an important milestone of its own last month, when it sent the first samples of its AquAdvantage salmon to customers. Wulf said AquaBounty’s strategy is focused on an initial rollout in foodservice channels

“We like foodservice because that’s always where culinary innovation tends to take place … [And] we think retail is going to be important for us as well,” she said. “But the bigger opportunity in terms of reaching the consumer is going to be direct-to-consumer, and I think what we’ve seen with the pandemic is that shopping habits have changed, eating habits have changed. So how do we set ourselves up to be able to provide that fresh product to consumers … so that they can have a similar experience eating it at home as they do when they dine out?”

The eating experience is key to AquaBounty’s success, as it is with all alternative protein products – and for that matter, all seafood products, Wulf said.

“We do want to make sure that dining experience is top-notch, because that allows us to build from there,” she said. “At the end of the day, if that doesn’t happen, consumers just aren’t going to repeat [their purchases].”

Photo courtesy of Gathered Foods

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