Most people will remember 2020 as a year of turmoil, pain and disruption. For the US seafood industry, however, 2020 might go down in history as the beginning of a new era of increased seafood consumption.
Lockdowns, the collapse of the foodservice sector, working from home, the closing of schools – all of these disruptive forces brought on by the coronavirus may have provided the accelerant needed to finally get Americans firmly aboard the seafood bandwagon.
Evidence, both qualitative and anecdotal, that suggests Americans are over their chronic seafood phobia has been mounting since the onset of the pandemic in March.
By now you are all familiar with the boost in consumption of shelf-stable and frozen seafood items. The entire shelf-stable tuna category saw a 28 percent increase in sales since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Todd Putman, chief growth officer for canned tuna giant Bumble Bee told me in October. Frozen fish sales have seen similar positive results.
Given the way the pandemic unfolded, it’s not entirely surprising that consumers stocked up on these items. But beneath the numbers something more fundamental has been happening: consumers have been forced to cook at home, and this has led to a couple key developments that underpin the belief that even when restaurants reopen and the world edges back toward pre-COVID normalcy, more consumers will cook and eat more seafood at home.
Whenever someone is forced to change his or her life quickly and unexpectedly, he or she develops a new skill set (or improves upon the skills they already have) to handle the change.
A survey by food and beverage communications firm Hunter this spring found that of American adults surveyed who report they are cooking more while at home, 75 percent have become more confident in the kitchen, 50 percent are learning more about cooking, and 73 percent are enjoying cooking more than they did before.
This is key in my opinion. We know the primary driver behind Americans’ fear of cooking seafood at home is a lack of confidence in how to prepare fish and shellfish. The forced confinement and the contraction of restaurant dining brought on by the virus opened the door for home cooks of all ages to acquire new cooking skills and needed equipment with which to prepare foods. The value of this can not be understated.
Desire to cook a nice seafood meal means nothing if you don’t have the skills and the confidence to take on a recipe.
"You can’t unlearn something, so once you’ve cooked it once, your confidence rises," said Rick Stein, vice president of the Food Industry Association (FMI), which represents US retailers and other food suppliers.
“Retailers feel seafood consumption has hit a new bar and will increase from there and not drop back below that bar.”
As we say good riddance to 2020 and welcome in a fresh and hopefully better 2021, let's hope we are, at the same time, ushering in a new era of seafood consumption.
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