Getting unstuck: A cure to increase consumption?

Static. Still. Stagnant. That’s seafood consumption in the United States. Stuck at about 16 pounds per capita for several years running, there seems to be no easy answer as to how that number can grow.

But the panelists at the conference, Stuck at 16: Persuading Americans to Eat More Fish, at the International Boston Seafood Show were more than willing to take a stab at it. In short, the message about seafood isn’t getting through to the folks who need to hear it most: consumers.

“We as an industry spend millions of dollars promoting seafood to each other, at events like this, but nobody spends any money getting this message to the consumer,” said Chris Lazicki of Performance Food Group/AFI. A general seafood-category marketing message concentrating on seafood’s healthy attributes is what Lazicki wants to see.

But who will pay for that, considering the fragmentation of the seafood industry? And without a central marketing message, like

“Pork: The Other White Meat,” what compels consumers to make a beeline for the seafood display case at the supermarket?

Linda O’Dierno of the National Aquaculture Association said American consumers are confused by seafood and the tremendous variety in the category. Retailers, she said, are failing to educate consumers and create excitement about the product to drive sales.

“It’s hard to educate [consumers]. A lot of retail outlets don’t do a good job with seafood and the problem has gotten worse because of the recession,” she said. “Retailers are looking for lower-priced foods and sometimes you sacrifice quality, and poor quality reinforces the worst-case scenario,” which is that seafood is intimidating and difficult to prepare.

The problem isn’t choice: There are plenty of high-quality seafood options, farmed and wild, available to seafood buyers. But there are limits to what consumers are willing to pay for fish and their unique attributes like wild, farmed, local or sustainable, said Michael B. Timmons, Ph.D., professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Timmons is also president of Fingerlakes Aquaculture, which produces tilapia in upstate New York.

“I’m a fish farmer. I can create any product you want,” said Timmons. “The question I have as a producer, will I make any profit? What are consumers willing to pay?”

Conference moderator Steven Hedlund, editor of SeafoodSource, collaborated with Timmons on a consumer survey, a 36-page report on U.S. consumers’ finfish-buying habits at the retail level. The survey explores who’s likely to pay more for which product attributes.

Timmons believes that the more highly perishable products should be able to generate a “higher price point on willingness to pay.”

Roy Palmer, CEO of Seafood Experience Australia (SEA), said the challenges of increasing seafood consumption are not limited to the United States. The seafood industry, he said, needs to collaborate and stop fighting amongst itself.

“We struggle in our own countries to get people working together,” he said. “Herding cats comes to mind, when I think of how painful that experience can be.”

Training counter and wait staff to understand seafood and convey the important messages to consumers simply isn’t getting done, he added.

“At SEA, we created DIE: develop, improve and empower,” he said. “If you don’t do this, you’re going to die.”


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