Seafood industry relationship with plant-based sector thawing
Jen Lamy, the Sustainable Seafood Initiative manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit dedicated to the promotion plant-based and cellular alternatives to seafood, meat, dairy, and eggs, thinks there’s room enough for both her sector and the traditional seafood industry to thrive in the U.S. retail and foodservice scene.
“Consumers are demanding a wider range of products, including plant-based seafood. Conventional seafood companies should get involved and expand options for consumers, instead of taking a defensive stance that strips consumers of the choices they are requesting,” Lamy told SeafoodSource.
Several seafood companies have begun to adopt that approach. Last month, German frozen food company FRoSTA Foodservice launched a new range of vegan plant-based seafood alternatives, and in October 2019, Van Cleve Seafood Co. launched a line of plant-based products to complement its conventional options. In January, Nutreco announced a strategic partnership with cellular aquaculture firm BlueNalu. And on 2 March, including Bumble Bee Foods announced it will partner with Gathered Foods Corporation, which makes Good Catch plant-based seafood products, on a distribution deal.
San Diego, California, U.S.A.-based Bumble Bee will “leverage its sales, distribution and logistics expertise to ensure that consumers nationwide have access to Good Catch products at affordable prices,” Bumble Bee said in a press release.
These recently announced partnerships represent a steady erosion of the industry’s historic stance of keeping its distance from the plant-based food movement. At the 2020 Global Seafood Market Conference, hosted by the National Fisheries Institute, the U.S. industry’s trade body, Santa Monica Seafoods President and CEO Roger O’Brien hosted a panel titled “Fishless Fish: The impact of plant-based and cell-cultured products on traditional seafood and other proteins,” during which he called plant-based foods a “threat” and said the seafood industry should learn from other industries, like beef and dairy, which have been “fighting this war for some time now.”
But Bumble Bee decided to take a different tack, partnering with Gathered Foods because “seafood is the next wave in the plant-based revolution that has been centered in the dairy and meat aisle,” it said in a press release announcing the deal.
The Bumble Bee/Gathered Foods partnership is the kind of collaboration Lamy and the Good Food Institute are lobbying for as they seek a different path forward with the seafood industry than their more combative relationship with the U.S. dairy and meat industry.
“The seafood industry has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes made by the meat and dairy industries. With plant-based seafood only making up about 1 percent of the plant-based meat market, there is still plenty of time for companies to get in on the ground floor of this movement – and to access a consumer base previously out of reach,” Lamy said.
Lamy cited the examples of Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, two giants in the meat industry, which have both branched into the plant-based sector.
“Forward-looking members of the meat industry have begun seizing these opportunities. Upon the launch of its Raised and Rooted line last year, Tyson Foods president and CEO Noel White said, ‘Today’s consumers are seeking more protein options, so we’re creating new products for the growing number of people open to flexible diets that include both meat and plant-based protein,’” Lamy said. “Similarly, when pork producer Smithfield Foods introduced its Pure Farmland brand, Smithfield Chief Commercial Officer John Pauley stated, ‘With this launch, we are bringing together our expertise in creating market-leading food products, our organizational commitment to sustainability, and our deep understanding of ‘flexitarian’ consumers, to deliver a broad variety of flavorful plant-based protein choices that consumers want and can afford at a great value.’”
Lamy warned the seafood industry against fighting a battle over labeling, as the milk and meat industries have done by pushing for state laws that limit the types of words that can be used on the packages of meatless foods.
“The fight has not gone particularly well for those industries,” Lamy said, citing the blockage by a federal court of a law passed in Arkansas that would prohibit the use of words including “burger,” sausage,” and “roast” to describe products not derived from animals. The Arkansas law is being challenged by The Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that it amounts to censorship and violates the First Amendment. Similar laws have passed in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota, and other states, according to the Good Food Institute.
“Why not seize the business opportunity instead of fighting it?” Lamy said. “With global demand for seafood set to increase as incomes and populations grow, there is more than enough room for all production types to serve consumers. Plant-based and cultivated seafood can play a key role in increasing the supply of seafood to meet that demand while allowing wild-caught seafood and aquaculture to grow truly sustainably.”
Lamy disputed the idea that consumers are confused by the labeling currently being used to describe plant-based foods.
“We have no reason to believe that the public will be confused about products labeled using species names like ‘plant-based shrimp’ or ‘vegan tuna,’” she said. “And when cultivated seafood comes to market, labeling them as anything other than the species to which they are exactly identical would be misleading – and possibly dangerous – to consumers.”
But NFI Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons cited a new study commissioned by the seafood industry and conducted by the public relations firm FoodMinds, which found between 29 percent and 35 percent of consumers surveyed believed plant-based imitation seafood products contained actual seafood, with an additional 6 percent to 8 percent “simply unsure what they contained.”
“To suggest there’s no evidence that consumers are confused is a huge overreach,” Gibbons said. “But let’s put regulation and communication in perspective for a minute. The statement of identity on a package is supposed to tell a consumer what is in the package, as opposed to what is not in the package. By example “Vegan Shrimp,” that contains no shrimp, is not only confusing it fails that test spectacularly.”
In an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, NFI President John Connelly said it is the role of government role to ensure that consumers “get the food that a label claims is in the package.”
“Would regulators allow Kia to produce a car it simply decided to call a Tesla but was not fancy, not electric, and had no brand relationship to the other well-known automaker? Could Kia argue in court its First Amendment rights were being infringed upon by regulation that stopped it from stealing another product’s identity? A case like this would be laughed out of court,” he wrote. “Plant-based alternative products that attempt to mimic seafood have a place in today’s grocery store and on the modern menu. There is undoubtedly room for them in a space that is trying to feed a growing world. Nevertheless, there is little room for the alternative regulatory reality they seek when it comes to labeling.”
The NFI said it defers to the government – either on the federal, or barring a decision by Congress, at the state level – as to how plant-based products are labeled, according to Gibbons. But the NFI will continue to insist that labels for seafood or food claiming to be seafood be 100 percent accurate.
“These ultra-processed, plant-based amalgamations are without question part of the future of feeding a growing planet. They’re technologically impressive and can and should be able to coexist with real seafood, as long as they’re labeled correctly,” Gibbons said. “Plant-based seafood analogs and cultivated/cell-based seafood are fundamentally different products and their respective labels would need to reflect that. It is up to regulators to determine how they’re labeled, but NFI supports informed labels that give consumers accurate information.”
Lamy said, as sources of healthy protein, the seafood and plant-based industries have similar benefits to consumers, and that a focus on maximizing market penetration and upping consumption numbers should be the focus of the efforts of both industries.
“Fortunately, there is room for everyone in creating the market for sustainable seafood,” Lamy said. “With global demand for seafood set to increase as incomes and populations grow, there is more than enough room for all production types to serve consumers. Plant-based and cultivated seafood can play a key role in increasing the supply of seafood to meet that demand while allowing wild-caught seafood and aquaculture to grow truly sustainably.”
She urged more collaboration between the seafood and plant-based worlds.
“Let’s work together to get healthy and sustainably produced protein to our growing population,” Lamy said.
Photo courtesy of Gavin Gibbons courtesy of National Fisheries Institute; Photo of Jen Lamy courtesy of Good Food Institute