Seafood suppliers forced to adjust to rapidly changing market conditions

Published on
March 30, 2020

U.S. seafood suppliers are working to quickly shift from foodservice to retail and direct-to-consumer channels as they deal with the immediate impact of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on their businesses.

Filer, Idaho-based Riverence Holdings LLC, which acquired farmed trout producer Clear Springs Foods in February, is realizing a significant loss in business due to its heavy focus on the foodservice sector, according to Riverence Director of Communications Gabe Watkins.

“We have experienced a massive change to our sales because of foodservice going away,” Watkins told SeafoodSource. “It is an interesting time to be a local producer with an absolutely full supply of fish…It is a different dynamic around us and we are subject to that.”

While many suppliers and distributors are shifting their focus to retail and direct-to-consumer channels, the shift “will never offset the significant declines from foodservice operations,” Blue Harvest CEO Keith Decker told SeafoodSource.

Around two-thirds of seafood is eaten away from home in the U.S., Decker said, plus it is more expensive than other proteins.

“The two-thirds could never be overcome by the one-third,” he said. “It is not going to be possible to have everyone eating at home, due to the higher price point and people who are not quite certain what to do with the various species.”

New Bedford, Massachusetts-based Blue Harvest has also run into export challenges due to COVID-19 – particularly regarding its scallops. However, the company is continuing to buy seafood from fishermen and is processing it for retail and foodservice, Decker said.

Blue Harvest has found critical support from restaurant chain Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub. Its CEO, Charlie Noyes, told the Gloucester Times it was committed to supporting the Gloucester fishing industry with a purchase of at least 750,000 pounds of haddock from Blue Harvest for use in the company’s 105 restaurants. The entire purchase could be as large as three million pounds, according to the company, which is expanding its frozen offerings and planning to feature Cape Ann haddock on its summer menu launching on 15 June, but those plans are still tentative due to uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the newspaper report.

Decker said Blue Harvest appreciated the support.

”Blue Harvest is excited to be working with the Ninety Nine Restaurant and Pub in our mutual effort to bring locally harvested and processed haddock to their customers,” Decker told SeafoodSource. “Right here in our local New England waters, we have tremendous natural resources that are underfished and underutilized in our haddock, ocean perch, and Atlantic pollock stocks.”

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, which last week had four confirmed cases of COVID-19, Van Cleve Seafood Co. decided to close its fish processing plant for at least the next two weeks. The company employs 80 people at the plant.

“The health and safety of the community is now leading the decision to close,” Van Cleve Co-founder Monica Van Cleve-Talbert told SeafoodSource. “This impacts our ability to fulfill purchase orders, leaving some orders in limbo for now.  We will wait for them to resume fishing and processing our wild haddock, while we fear for the fishermen and their financial impact.” 

Spotsylvania, Virginia-based Van Cleve was on the verge of onboarding with a major foodservice distributor right when this virus crisis hit, Monica Van Cleve-Talbert said.

“That is now on hold as well,” she said.

Van Cleve Seafood is now focusing more on online orders than retail and foodservice. Thus far in 2020, Van Cleve’s online orders “have gone through the roof,” Shelly Van Cleve, co-founder and vice president of product development, told SeafoodSource.

“Consumers want to invest in their own health and wellness to fight-off disease with a boosted immune system, which in reality can mean the difference between life and death,” Van Cleve said.

Meanwhile, Riverence has shifted focus from foodservice to retail, particularly since Clear Springs already has strong retail distribution.

“One of our advantages is our own trucking fleet with national routes in-house. We have no problems bringing our fish across the country from coast to coast, making sure retailers know about us and have access to us,” Watkins said.

However, Riverence is facing resistance from retailers that are requiring the products they buy to be certified by either the Marine Stewardship Council, Best Aquaculture Practices program, or other certifications. Clear Springs’ operations are BAP-certified, but Riverence’s are not, Watkins said, though he said the company farms its trout at standards that meet or exceed BAP requirements. Watkins suggested retailers relax their certification requirements through the coronavirus crisis.

“How do we make sure retail [seafood supply] is flowing when it is needed most? The U.S. already has the highest food safety standards in the world so, when you are in the middle of the pandemic, know that the U.S. food industry is highly regulated and really stringent,” Watkins said.

Photo courtesy of Riverence and FishWise

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