There are a lot of crises facing the aquaculture and fisheries sectors around the globe. Plant-based seafood isn't one of them.
That hasn't stopped the hand-wringing across the Western seafood world about the potential market share this nascent, almost insignificant protein segment might steal.
The plant-based seafood "threat" was a featured topic at last week's Global Seafood Marketing Conference in Orlando, Florida, and the debate (in part because of excellent moderating by Santa Monica Seafoods CEO Roger O'Brien and a great panel) took a lot of attention away from other, far more pressing, issues.
My colleague John Fiorillo and I have been at odds over just how big the issue of plant-based seafood is.
Fiorillo, whose fantastic coverage of the topic was highlighted at the conference, has argued that the trend is a very real threat, and one the industry should take seriously. More recently, he noted that the plant-based and alternative protein trend is unstoppable, and a "if you can't beat them, join them" approach might be smarter.
That didn't cow the crowd at GSMC, some of whom actually applauded a PowerPoint slide (a first in history outside of Apple product reveals) with a quote from Red Lobster President Kim Lopdrup: "[W]e have looked into plant-based seafood — it was terrible. And no, we’re not introducing it."
Seafood Expo North America owner Diversified Business likely yielded to some of the same loud voices when it ruled it would not allow plant-based seafood producers to exhibit at the Boston event this year.
Rather than take it lying down, imitation tuna brand Tuno just threatened to sue the organizer for anti-trust violations.
Tuno's lawsuit is completely unwinnable and worth nobody's time. I hope they know that. But it's the thought that counts, as the saying goes, and I'm coming down on the side of Tuno on this one.
In part, I was swayed by the words of J. Douglas Hines, the chairman of Atlantic Natural Foods, which owns the Tuno brand.
“Leaders in the seafood industry are again attempting to ignore innovation and groups out of their control,” Hines said of the lawsuit threat.
“Instead of embracing change and delivering on new consumer expectations, they continue on a path to repeat past practices.”
He's right: the seafood industry has a long, storied history of stifling innovation in favor of maintaining razor-thin margins.
A couple decades ago, it was aquaculture that needed to be kept at bay.
But the innovations that sector brought about have been revolutionary, and have expanded consumption of some species (namely salmon) dramatically, both farmed and wild, across the Western world.
Back to GSMC. On the plant-based protein debate panel were representatives from the daily and meat sector, who won sympathy with their call to require tighter labeling regulations from the US Food and Drug Administration on plant-based alternatives.
The dairy and beef sectors -- essentially two drunks trying to hold each other up -- are neither good role models, or good friends.
Seafood in general buries those proteins on its sustainability and health story. The industry throws its lot in with them at its peril.
To his credit, Jim Mulhern of the National Milk Producers Federation noted that the dairy giants that recently imploded didn't do so because of soy milk (excuse me, soy-based imitation dairy beverage), but a long, steady decline in consumption and bad management. Maybe -- just maybe -- the companies became too focused on their problems?
Seafood should not fall into that trap. Welcome the competition. Study them. Learn from them. Figure out what's making them catch on with consumers. And -- if you can -- kick their ass.
It's a brave new world out there, and the seafood industry has plenty of opportunities to reinvent itself for a new era of consumers.
Trying to keep fake seafood out of the marketplace is a waste of precious time and energy.