Wrap your minds around this: In 1910, per capita seafood consumption in the United states was 11.2 pounds. In 1990, consumption had risen to 15 pounds per person. And since that time – 30 years – consumption has remained virtually flat.
So, over the course of 110 years we have basically boosted seafood consumption from 11.2 pounds to 16 pounds, or 42 percent. Chicken consumption was around 10 pounds per person in 1910 and today sits at around 95 pounds, an 850 percent jump.
Beef consumption, while falling back in recent years, was more than 56 pounds per person in 1910. Consumption surpassed 90 pounds in the mid-1970s, but today is back at around 57 pounds per person. Certainly, beef has scaled back from its heydays, but we still eat roughly 250 percent more beef than seafood.
These numbers point out the obvious – the United States does not have a seafood culture; we are not a seafood-eating nation. While this isn’t a new discovery, it is a foreboding fact, and I think finally explains why no matter what seafood producers seem to do, per capita consumption just doesn’t seem to budge.
I hope I am wrong, but I predict that we will never see 20 pounds per person, as the industry once dreamed. I am doubtful we ever hit 17 pounds, to be honest, but I am hopeful.
I spent last week at the National Fisheries Institute’s (NFI) Global Seafood Market Conference (GSMC). There were plenty of informative presentations and lots of trends and consumer numbers tossed up on screen for everyone to absorb.
Unfortunately, to me, the data tell a worrisome story: consumers, especially younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z) look at protein very differently than generations before them.
The rise of lab-gown and plant-based products, even though consumption is tiny compared to that of beef, chicken and seafood, tells me that consumers of the future have a very fluid definition of protein, and while chicken and beef will be better able to weather any loss of market share away from animal protein because of their deep cultural roots in America's food culture, seafood, because its links to the food culture are so frail, will be further left behind.
Everyone knows how to cook and buy beef and chicken because it is part of a broader recognized food culture, but, as we have heard a bazillion times, consumers remain disconnected from seafood – they don’t know how to buy it, cook it, etc. Even when producers make it simple, as in portions, ready-meals and other easy-to-prepare forms, the uptake at the consumer level is minimal at best.
I hate to be a downer about this, but I have struggled for the 30 years that I have been reporting about this industry to figure out why what is arguably the perfect protein can’t breakthrough its per capita consumption barrier in the United States. It has become my “white whale.”
The industry has met virtually every consumer trend with an answer, and it is still doing so today. Seafood is plentiful and readily available in most parts of the country. Its health credentials are firmly established, as is its sustainability profile.
Yet, beef and chicken -- and now plant-based and lab-grown -- continue to attract consumer spending.
Culture is a powerful force and is hard to change, and in the case of seafood it just might be impossible.
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