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Get ready to fight fake fish

Vegan tuna, vegan salmon, vegan shrimp, vegan fish and chips – what should the seafood industry do about its new competitor?

Surprise! Vegan tuna is not tuna. Vegan salmon is not salmon. Vegan shrimp is not shrimp. Vegan fish and chips are… well I’m not sure, but not fish and chips.

At what point does the vegan tuna sandwich cease to be a chickpea mayonnaise sandwich? It doesn’t, but marketing it as something familiar and tasty like tuna can be a lot more effective than marketing it as what it truly is: a pretender.

Carrots masquerade as smoked salmon and vegan shrimp and salmon products are hitting UK retailers, placed right alongside seafood.

Don’t think it’s a threat? There is a danger that if this trend prevails and keeps growing, younger generations might grow up thinking these “fake” seafood products are the equivalent, or even better version, of actual seafood and start making the switch.

Take a look at the milk aisle for example. We now have all sorts of "milk" and a generation is growing up thinking almond milk is milk. In the United States non-dairy milk sales have grown 61 percent since 2012, and were estimated at $2.1 billion (€1.8 billion) in 2017, according to market research firm Mintel. Overall sales in the dairy-milk category have fallen 15 percent since 2012, reaching an estimated $16.1 billion (€14.2 billion) in 2017.

Whatever your views on people’s dietary choices, this rise in vegan seafood has the potential to be quite damaging to the seafood category – a category consumers already, by and large, find very confusing, making them wary about approaching fish and seafood in the first place.

The point was raised this week by Guy Dean, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Albion Farms and Fisheries, where he quite rightly alerts the industry to the fact plant-based seafood is yet another threat, and the potential messaging “threatens our ability to create a demand for our product.”

And I fully agree. Seafood already has a cacophony of marketing issues, and this trend really isn’t helping.

The vegan market in the United Kingdom alone has grown rapidly in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down.

According to an Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned by The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. There were 600,000 vegans in Great Britain in 2018, or 1.16 percent of the population.

Furthermore, in 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation -- as many as one in six (16 percent) food products launched in the country during the year had a vegan/no animal ingredients claim, doubling from just 8 percent in 2015.

According to Eric Woods, managing director of Worldwide Food Associates, which is distributing Tuno -- a fish free tuna product -- in the UK, retail sales of plant-based proteins in the United Kingdom have grown 14 percent in the last year alone and will continue to do so.

On the other hand, seafood consumption is flatlining if not declining in the United Kingdom, so there is no time for resting on your vegan laurels -- something needs to be done.

Seafish, the UK trade body representing the industry, is having a go and recently launched a campaign for “seaganism,” a new diet combining fish with a plant-based diet. It seems to be a bit “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em."

LETTER: Why are we allowing plants masquerading as seafood to exhibit at Boston, Brussels seafood shows?

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But let’s not give up before we’ve even begun. The first step is to recognize this is a bona fide threat – just like chicken, beef and pork – and should not be taken lightly.

Guy Dean questions why non-seafood products should be welcome at a seafood show. I agree. The industry should not roll over and welcome these competitors with open arms but instead push back.

Meat and chicken have battled back -- now it’s seafood’s turn.

So, don’t shrug it off – seafood is one of the best and healthiest proteins available, and consumers are finally starting to get this. The millions of dollars in promoting seafood are paying off –people need to keep hearing it, and instead of shouting at vegetables, the industry should be shouting about all the ways seafood is better.

Any comments, complaints, retaliatory rants, please feel free to email me at dominic.welling@intrafish.com

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