Norwegian Seafood Council rep: Industry must "raise voice" about plant-based imitation seafood products

There is a growing appetite among younger consumers, particularly millennials, for food and seafood that has an authentic story to tell, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC), which has been working directly with American consumers in recent years – through various focus groups – to understand what drives and deters modern seafood purchasing. 

With the primary aim of helping Norwegian fisheries and the country’s aquaculture industry to develop new markets, NSC has been keeping a pulse on the consumption trends dominating in the United States, and has found that when it comes to seafood and other proteins, a good origin story can go a long way.

“Origin matters for the end-consumers,” Egil Ove Sundheim, the U.S. director of NSC, explained to SeafoodSource.  

This seems especially so for millennials, the generation responsible for overhauling the ways in which food and mealtimes are experienced, and the demographic set to acquire the majority of purchasing power within the next decade, Sundheim said. 

“In five, seven, 10 years, [millennials] will be the most important purchasers of food, as they start to build families,” he said. 

Millennials and other younger demographics in the U.S. are looking for definition in new places, often embracing transparent seafood sources that align and build upon their own personal brands, Sundheim noted. 

“We see that the young generations are looking for information about the products that they eat and they want to know the story behind it – who produced it, how it’s produced, what does it contain, did any animal get hurt, was the environment harmed, is it a big corporation that’s behind it, etcetera. They want to see that the products that they eat…help to define them,” he said. 

There is no shortage of compelling origin stories throughout Norway’s robust seafood industry, but suppliers are perhaps too modest in their current approach to sharing them, Sundheim said.

“What I try to teach the industry now is that they have to bring out their good stories on their own,” he said. “It’s one thing to have me talk about it, and a totally different thing to have the actual fisherman or fisherwoman or salmon farmer or salmon farming family talk about what they do, because those stories are all about maintaining the welfare of the fish, the welfare of society, of their families, and of their families’ friends, so that they have schools in the system, so that roads are being built, so that tax money is being applied locally to have a vibrant local society. That’s good for business. Those of the same stories that these [younger] generations are looking for.” 

It's not just Norwegian seafood suppliers who should put an emphasis on their origin stories right now, but all suppliers who deal with and within the United States, according to Sundheim. It could be the difference-maker in maintaining clarity for the seafood category in the country, he said, as more plant-based, imitation seafood products enter the market.

“We know origin matters – that’s our starting point,” he said. “And that’s why I’m also a little concerned about some vegan/vegetarian products now coming onto market that are labeled as ‘salmon’ or ‘tuna’ or…‘finless fish.’ I think the industry will have to watch out for what’s going on right now because the definition of salmon, the definition of tuna, is being challenged.”

Requirements set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determine “what a product should be to be called salmon or to be called tuna, and these products do not fulfill those requirements,” Sundheim said. “I think that we [as an industry] have to be aware that this is going on. We have products now using our terminology…that are defined by the FDA not to be what they’re claiming to be. We need, as an industry, to raise our voice.”

“If nobody raises their voice about it, we might end up in a similar situation as milk did a few years back when soy milk and almond milk were introduced, claiming a part of the milk category and even claiming a part of the milk cooler,” he added.

A recent report from surveying firm Technomic, titled “Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian,” found that the consumption of vegan and vegetarian cuisine is rising. Approximately 50 percent of the overall consumers surveyed by Technomic were shown to eat vegetarian or vegan dishes on a monthly basis. The firm also discovered that “more consumers now than in 2016 are following specialty diets that restrict meat or seafood consumption.”

Additionally, in the foodservice realm, vegan and vegetarian chains seem to be experiencing nominal growth, while legacy full-service seafood chains face mounting obstacles, Technomic said.

“Legacy full-service restaurant seafood chains continue to struggle while fast casuals with more specialized menu offerings (e.g., Luke’s Lobster, LA Crawfish, etc.) are now finding success. Meanwhile, vegetable-forward, fast-casual restaurants such as Sweetgreen and Chop’t are part of a strong growth category that continues to fill a gap in the marketplace for quick, quality vegetarian or vegan offerings,” the firm wrote of its recent findings.

For Sundheim, the seafood industry working together to establish and enforce clear classification guidelines in this realm would give consumers the transparency they crave and deserve.

“Nothing against vegan/vegetarian products being sold…but it is not salmon. So, let the consumer know what it is,” he said.  


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