Aquafeed disrupter scales up with consumer needs in mind

Published on
September 26, 2019

The ability to produce more farmed seafood that’s rich in health-boosting nutrients without putting any additional burden on the ocean could soon become a persuasive new story for the retail and foodservice sectors and their respective customers, according to Veramaris Global Business Development Director Ian Carr.

Having developed an algal oil with high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and with its new USD 200 million (EUR 182 million) Nebraska facility up and running, Veramaris, a joint-venture of DSM and Evonik, is increasingly approaching stakeholders across the value chain to identify “courageous leaders” who will provide the much-needed support and contracts necessary as the company scales up production, Carr told attendees of the recent Aquaculture Innovation Europe conference in London.

Carr told the conference that Veramaris’ novel feed ingredient delivers on two levels. Firstly, it addresses the public health need to have sufficient amounts of the essential EPA and DHA molecules in the human diet, helping to tackle what the World Health Organization describes as the “double burden of malnutrition,” characterized by the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight and obesity, or diet-related noncommunicable diseases. And secondly, the technology facilitates this without increasing the pressure on reduction fishery resources, thereby creating a means by which the aquaculture sector can grow responsibly. 

“We’ve been very successful in recruiting some key retailers who believe in that future, who believe in the sustainable growth of aquaculture, and who want to increase the supply of omega-3 for people to address public health needs,” Carr said.

In France, supermarket chain Match is already stocking salmon grown on a diet containing the algal oil made by Norwegian farmer Lingalaks in 400 of its stores, while U.K. retail giant Tesco has stepped up its support by telling its salmon suppliers that it would like to see a proportion of the EPA/DHA that’s in its fish coming from algae.

“There are more that we will be able to announce very soon – retailers across Europe and the UK – who are saying that this is something they believe in,” Carr said.

Retail, foodservice buy-in

Mike Mitchell, founder of seafood consultancy Fair Seas Ltd. – which works within the retail and food manufacturing space – believes the algal oil also has the potential to address the important consumer issue of falling omega-3 levels in farmed salmon. 

The rapid growth of the sector over recent decades, with production far outstripping the natural feed components, has increased the substitution of fishmeal and fish oil for other ingredients, and while Mitchell stressed that this hasn’t been to the detriment of fish health and growth, he believes that the consumer proposition has been weakened.

“You’re actually diluting one of the main reasons that the consumer wants to eat oily fish – because of the omegas. It’s a superfood; it’s good for them. And it’s good for them because it has omega-3s. But if you are growing salmon that’s full of omega-6s then that’s not the same thing.” he said. “Veramaris are outsiders to our industry. They are a biotech company, not a salmon farming or a salmon feed company, and they have looked at our market and identified a need – one that speaks directly to the consumer. That’s the clever thing. If the conversations with retailers and foodservice companies are about people needing the product then it can make a compelling story, and that is a great step forward for our industry.”

Because of the very diverse nature of the foodservice sector, Laky Zervudachi, director of sustainability at Direct Seafoods, believes innovators such as Veramaris should look to secure the support of large contract caterers. He said this is because these businesses tend to look closely at the stories behind production systems, as well as at ways in which they might avoid any external fallout from their procurement decisions.

“If, for example, you are a bank contracting your foodservice out to a caterer, one of the things you want to do right is make sure that all of the food produced for you is coming from the right sources. We are seeing a lot of that pressure from foodservice players – big names in the market – who really have taken this onboard as one of the key stories that they want to tell,” Zervudachi said. “I think that these guys have the ability to start telling those stories to their clients and then it’s about getting it to the consumer – so they can also understand what the possibilities are.”

Busting myths and old truths

Both Mitchell and Zervudachi believe that the use of more sustainable ingredients such as algal oil can also help change public opinion about the salmon sector and about aquaculture in general. 

“You don’t have to go very far outside our industry to find that there is very little known about aquaculture and there are some very strong prejudices against aquaculture held by food people and by the public, media, NGOs, etcetera,” Michell said. “Aquaculture has had a lot of that over the years. Some of those criticisms have been valid; some have not been. But something that helps, that relieves the pressure on a finite world catch resource, that enables growth of the aquaculture industry, has to be a positive. It's not a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets in these issues, but this is a positive step forward. And I think for some people, if we can tell the story correctly and make it compelling, it will take some of the criticism off the growth of the sector.”

Zervudachi said Veramaris fits into the category of a “good news story” for aquaculture.

“Combining a positive ingredient that’s not doing any damage anywhere and that has actually got the same qualities in terms of the omega-3s, is an important, positive story to tell and getting it in front of customers is key. It needs to find that buy-in, and I believe those people are out there,” he said. “Find a leader that understands the problems and who will grab the solution.”

Value over volume

As with most novel technologies, there is a premium attached to Veramaris’s solution, and while Carr said inroads into costs are likely to be made over the next 18 months as it moves to scale and finds greater efficiencies in productivity, he doesn’t believe that the current price differential presents much of an obstacle.

“We have got to stop thinking about volume and think about value,” he said. “Before we invested in the facility, we did a lot of research, trying to understand whether there was a willingness for consumers to pay for healthy seafood – healthy in terms of omega-3 EPA and DHA – and sustainable in terms of reducing the pressure on marine resources. And the answer to that was a resounding yes,” he said. “People are prepared to pay in the region of 9 to 11 percent more for salmon that delivers the healthiness and delivers on the sustainability. The sad news is that when you look back over the last 10 to 15 years, the price of salmon has doubled and yet the nutritional value has halved. I’m not sure if many consumers were made aware of that, just how comfortable they would be. So you have got to think about the value opportunity here when you start talking about price.”

Carr also explained that if a company is looking to, for example, replace 3 percent of fish oil with 1 percent of algal oil to get the same level of DHA, a head-on gutted salmon will cost in the region of just 2 to 3 percent more. 

“Most retailers think that is a reasonable trade-off, and that’s why we are getting support in the value chain,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Veramaris

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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