Thai Union Group (‘TU’), one of the world’s largest seafood manufacturers, has announced it is exploring cultivated seafood. The tinned tuna giant, which owns brands including John West and Chicken of the Sea, has unveiled a new innovation centre charged with developing vegan seafood. Partnerships with other companies through a venture fund initiative offer potential for cultivated seafood in the future.
Thailand’s TU cites predicted growth patterns as a motivating factor for entering the alternative seafood sector. The company claims that globally the industry will be valued at $1.3 billion within 10 years.
Playing catch up with alternative meat
Maarten Geraets, managing director of alternative proteins at TU, has estimated that the alternative seafood sector is around eight years behind other vegan meat. He sees this as a commercial opportunity for TU to get ahead, thanks to its location and conventional sector experience. As a significant producer of seafood, Asia is well placed to become an alternative seafood hub.
The Good Food Institute has revealed data that suggests U.S. sales of plant-based seafood have increased. In 2020, they were up by 23 percent, representing $12 million. TU is not planning to stop with plant-based alternatives and is gearing up for advanced developments.
“The idea is to invest in deep tech — technology for the future,” Geraets told the Bangkok Post. “Cell-based could be a very plausible next step for us.”
TU has already partnered with BlueNalu, in 2021, to accelerate cultivated developments.
Equipped for success
TU launched a plant-based meat and seafood line in March 2021. Through its OMG Meat brand, seafood dishes including nuggets, patties, dumplings, shrimp, and dim sum are already available. Soy and pea protein are widely used but TU is keen to source local crops. Lentils, chickpeas, and mung beans have been cited as potential protein sources.
TU has acknowledged that plant-based seafood is a tougher sell than conventional vegan meat. Primarily, this has been attributed to the fact that seafood is considered fairly healthy already. However, it can be prohibitively expensive and represents a major allergen. Concerns about overfishing and contamination from heavy metals and plastics are pushing consumers towards meat-free alternatives.
“The bigger opportunity lies with flexitarians, who are flexing between meat, seafood and vegan propositions,” Geraets told the Bangkok Post. “Plant-based solutions are a trend that people would want to buy into. It’s something you want to be seen with, eating or drinking. It can be very aspirational.”
TU has identified the U.S., Europe and APAC as key vegan seafood markets to focus on.
The sector to watch
Vegan seafood is taking off in a big way, following the success of plant-based meat analogues. With the path already laid out by realistic meat-free burgers et al, fish-free seafood could be set for a smooth transition into consumers’ shopping habits.
Vegan tuna is making a splash right now. From Brazil’s Future Farm’s astonishingly authentic alternative to Berlin-based BettaF!sh launching throughout European ALDI branches, a lot is happening. Earlier this month it was revealed that Chile’s NotCo has tuna in its sights, along with salmon, as new developments.
The restaurant industry appears to be embracing plant-based seafood as well. At least for Veganuary. Wagamama U.K. released its Tempura F-ish + Bang Bang Yaki-imo as a Japanese alternative to traditional fish and chips. It features a fish alternative from OmniFoods that flakes as you’d expect and tastes authentic. We tasted the dish and can confirm it was delicious and had us double-checking we ordered the vegan option.
Lead photo by Thai Union.