It’s not often I lie awake worrying about the events of the seafood world. 2020 has offered me far more fodder for anxiety and insomnia than any seafood company ever could.
But at the news of Atlantic Sapphire’s first commercial land-based salmon harvest I have to admit to feeling a little anxiety by proxy.
We have written about the company for 10 years, about its glorious successes and meteoric failures, about its ability to imbue confidence and excitement in the investment community and about when new technology fails it and wipes out thousands of fish in a day.
And last week, the product of this interminable rollercoaster of gestation was born. The fish left the water (exactly how much, we're not sure).
But this harvest saw product from its mammoth Miami Bluehouse, as the company calls it, packaged and shipped to retailers to be put in actual chiller cabinets and sold to actual consumers.
It’s a milestone, of course. The team at Atlantic Sapphire has overcome huge hurdles and broken new ground, but this is where the real proof of concept begins.
Will people buy and eat land-based salmon? And how will retailers position it and convey the sustainability and traceability story on which Atlantic Sapphire so heavily relies for the price it needs to justify cost?
The salmon has a recommended retail price of $14.99 (€12.77) per pound. It’s definitely at the upper end of the fresh salmon fillet scale -- Walmart, for example, sells its fresh Atlantic salmon fillets for just between $7.50 (€6.38) and $8 (€6.80) per pound in the United States -- but not far off the price of some fresh wild salmon mid-season.
Of course, in industry terms it's deemed unfair to compare land-based salmon to other farmed Atlantic salmon. Behind the fish is a huge capital investment, impressive technology, skilled husbandry, unique sustainability credentials and entrepreneurial grit. The fish has been out of the water for just two days when it is presented in stores, has never been frozen and its path from farm to fork is short, simple and has a impressively minimalist carbon footprint. The industry knows and understands this.
However, all but the most educated of consumers are aware of this difference. Good lord, most consumers would be shocked to learn that over half the world’s seafood supply is farmed, not caught wild.
This lack of basic understanding puts a horrendous burden of education on Atlantic Sapphire and the retailers that sell its product. And the evidence of how this will work is yet to be seen.
A photo of the salmon in Wegmans tweeted by Johan Andreassen this week shows a standalone chiller case with signage in abundance. "USA Bluehouse Atlantic Salmon", it reads, with smaller print explaining its sustainability credentials and lack of antibiotics. It is a lot of information, albeit positive, to throw at a shopper who nipped in for a piece of fish for dinner.
Of course, the path to consumer education for Atlantic Sapphire is made steeper by the state of the US foodservice industry, which is making a slow and stilted recovery after COVID-19 all but shut it down earlier in the year.
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Before the pandemic most new, premium seafood products entered the consumer psyche via upscale restaurants. Able to channel consumers more attuned to higher-value food through their doors, restaurants and chefs can then work their magic in telling the product's story with the skill and weight of authority that it needs. Atlantic Sapphire does not, for now, have this luxury.
The company outwardly seems unphased by this, continuing the media and social media assault of unassailable confidence it is known for.
And this is maybe what it takes. To talk the talk and rely on retail and social media messaging to win consumer hearts.
But whatever the plan, it is a hefty stone to add to the sack of rocks the team carries with it to bed each night. Where before the worry was technology, money and the untrodden jungle of a new frontier, now it is also the preferences of a fickle public, with tighter purse strings and a jaded outlook.
I am over my Atlantic Sapphire-related insomnia, but I very much doubt they are.
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