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Imitation seafood poses a far bigger threat than you think

They can call themselves seafood products, but they are lying.

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Some things just don’t make sense.

For decades seafood suppliers had to label surimi seafood products as “imitation,” despite the fact the crab look-alike product is made from fish.*

Ironically, today there is an explosion of plant-based “seafood” items spilling onto store shelves, all passing themselves off as seafood, none of them required to include the words “imitation” or “artificial” on their labels. The products are the very definition of fake seafood. They're artificial seafood. They're imitation seafood. They clearly wish they were seafood, but they aren't and never will be.

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There seems to be two camps within the seafood universe regarding the emergence of fake-fish items in the marketplace. One side shrugs and says the sector is too small to even worry about. Others, however, recognize this as a potential threat and point to the milk aisle to support their arguments. The dairy folks have lost market share to soy milk, almond milk, and other milk pretenders.

UK supermarket giant Tesco jumped deeper into the fake seafood world this week by launching a new own-brand "affordable" plant-based battered fish-free fillets, made from seasoned soy and coated in a tempura batter.

The retailer said it will now have dedicated plant-based and vegetarian zones in its stores. It is riding what market research firm IRI says is the biggest culinary trend of the decade.

Related or not, let’s remember that in January Tesco announced plans to close fish counters in some stores, as part of a £1.5 billion (€1.7 billion/$2 billion) cost-cutting effort. The company is also closing some of its meat and delicatessen counters.

In 2018, Tesco accounted for the highest share of seafood sales at UK retail, cornering 22.6 percent of the trade, followed by Sainsbury’s at 14.8 percent and Aldi at 10.4 percent, according to market research company Nielsen.

'Shrimp cannot be vegan'

National Fisheries Institute (NFI) President John Connelly said it best in July in a letter to the Wall Street Journal when he urged lawmakers to require proper labeling of imitation seafood items.

"Bacon cannot be 'veggie' and shrimp cannot be 'vegan.' These are just facts at, literally, the cellular level," Connelly wrote. "They are not open to interpretation and they are certainly not constitutionally protected rhetoric. Support for labeling vegetable alternatives as meat or fish, under the guise of First Amendment championship, ignores the fact that limits, even on speech, exist for a reason."

And look at how some of the fake seafood alternatives are trying to capitalize on perceived deficiencies in seafood. The seafood fraudsters tout their products as mercury and microplastics-free and a solution to overfishing and what they claim are other ocean-unfriendly behaviors in the production of real seafood.

Money is pouring into the plant-based food sector, and food production and consumer giants are jumping aboard. My weekend of football viewing was saturated with this new ad by Burger King, touting its new fake hamburger, the Impossible Whopper.

Proponents of plant-based food say it is better for the environment than beef and other protein production systems, but there continues to be debate over that. As for the health benefit of plant-based foods, a regular Burger King Whopper has 660 calories and 980 mg sodium, while the new Impossible Whopper has 630 calories and 1080 mg sodium. Pretty much equal.

And keep in mind that unlike a fresh, crimson red tuna fillet, the fake stuff coming from the plant-centric food companies is heavily processed in most cases.

I really don't care what diet folks follow, and climate change may force radical changes in global food production and consumption in ways we cannot yet imagine.

But what I can't stomach is a product pretending to be something it is not, and that is exactly what is happening.

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

*In 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration allowed surimi seafood makers to drop, in some cases, the words "imitation crab" from labels and replace it with"Crab-flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein."

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