Faux fish is the next big thing in alternative protein.

Recovered meat has grown in popularity in recent years as consumers began making diet changes for a variety of reasons, from climate change concerns and sustainability to animal welfare and personal health benefits.

This has led to the proliferation of products from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in grocery stores and restaurants, while traditional meat companies like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Hormel are introducing new entrants in this category.

According to the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA) and the Good Food Institute (GFI), U.S. retail plant-based food sales rose 27% in 2020, totaling around $ 7 billion. According to consulting firm Kearney, the global market is projected to grow to $ 450 billion by 2040, which would be about a quarter of the broader meat market of $ 1.8 trillion.

The vegetable products market has been mainly driven by artificial milk and meat, which according to GFI account for 35% and 20% of total sales in this category, respectively. Plant-based meat sales rose 45% to $ 1.4 billion in 2020, while plant-based milk sales rose 20% to $ 2.5 billion.

The vegetable fish market, on the other hand, has developed more slowly. While U.S. sales grew 23% in 2020, they were only $ 12 million, according to GFI and PBFA. That equates to 0.1% of the total US seafood market, compared to sales of plant-based meat, which accounts for 1.4% of US meat sales.

“Conventional seafood really does have a health halo; it is viewed as a very healthy food that doctors often recommend patients eat more of,” said Marika Azoff, GFI corporate engagement specialist, on why alternative fish products may have lagged. “The environmental impact is not as simple as that of beef and dairy products – they are a little more complex and a little harder to pin down for the general public.”

Invest in artificial fish

However, several companies are trying to change that to capture some of the more than $ 15 billion seafood market in the United States.

According to GFI, 83 companies worldwide were producing alternative fish products in June 2021, 65 of which were focused on plant-based products. In comparison, there were only 29 companies producing alternative fish products in 2017.

In 2020, more than $ 80 million was invested in alternative seafood companies – four times the amount invested in 2019, according to GFI.

BlueNalus cell-based yellowtail amberjack with whole muscles.

Source: BlueNalu

Gathered Foods, which makes the plant-based seafood brand Good Catch, received a $ 32 million Series B funding round in January 2020 from investors including Lightlife Foods ‘parent company Greenleaf Foods and 301 Inc., General Mills’ venture arm , upset.

BlueNalu, which focuses on cultured seafood or fish made directly from cells, raised $ 60 million convertible bond financing in January 2021, a record deal for an alternative seafood company.

So far, the two giants of alternative meat products have not made any entry into alternative fish. Impossible Foods said in 2019 that it was working on a plant-based fish recipe but hasn’t released any products yet. Beyond Meat previously stated that it focuses on beef, poultry, and pork.

“There is no reason why alternative seafood cannot or will not catch up with the other types of alternative proteins,” said Azoff. “There isn’t a dominant plant-based seafood company like meat and dairy products, but we see potential for that to change soon.”

Traditional fish companies also invest in alternative fish themselves.

In September 2020, Nestlé launched Vuna, a plant-based tuna alternative, which marks the company’s first foray into plant-based seafood, with statistics citing that 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now depleted or on the verge of depletion .

The Thai Union Group, which owns brands such as Chicken of the Sea, announced that it will launch a plant-based shrimp product by the end of this year to join its other already available plant-based fish and crab products.

Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods, invested in plant-based shellfish company New Wave Foods in September 2019 and participated in its $ 18 million Series A funding round that closed in January. Bumble Bee Foods signed a joint venture with Good Catch in March 2020.

Growing concerns about the fishing industry

The Van Cleve Seafood Company, based in Virginia, which has been selling traditional seafood for more than 20 years, began under the label The Plant Based Seafood Co. exclusively with the production of plant-based seafood, with problems with the fishing industry such as child labor, overfishing and cited incorrect labeling.

“We wanted to do something about it and thought, if not us, then who?” Monica Talbert, chief executive officer of Plant Based Seafood Co., told CNBC’s Kate Rogers. “That’s when we made the decision to do something that would make a difference.”

The Plant Based Seafood Co. has products such as artichoke crab cakes and plant-based starch scallops and prawns, all of which are sold out online.

Fish industry concerns, highlighted in the recent Netflix documentary, Seaspriacy, for an end to fish consumption, are seen as a driver for consumers to switch to plant-based products. A survey by Kelton Global of 2,500 Americans found that reducing plastic waste in the ocean, saving marine habitats, and reducing damage to marine animals were reasons consumers would buy plant-based fish instead of wild-caught fish.

Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the fishing industry, said the organization and its member companies view herbal products as “a very likely part of the future of feeding a growing planet.”

“They are technologically impressive and can and should be able to coexist with real seafood as long as they are properly labeled,” said Gibbons, noting that some of NFI’s member companies have invested in alternative seafood.

However, according to Gibbons, it would be wrong in his view to portray alternative seafood either as nutritionally superior to real fish or as better for sustainability reasons.

“The USDA’s nutritional guidelines for Americans highlight that consumers are not eating nearly enough seafood and it is arguably the healthiest animal protein in the world,” he said. “Few public health practitioners would prefer imitation fish to real fish. You could make this recommendation for other products, but not seafood. From that perspective, these herbal amalgams are not real alternatives, just imitations.”

Gibbons said that 51% of seafood consumers are farmed and about 75% of commercially important marine fish stocks are fished at bio-sustainable levels, as identified and monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“There is a lot of hyperbole in claims about empty oceans, and if that is used to market counterfeit products, it is insincere,” Gibbons said.

There is one major obstacle that could stand in the way of artificial fishing: taste.

While 43% of respondents to the Kelton survey said they would consider buying alternative seafood and the most cited taste is the most important factor in their consumption, 38% said they would not like the taste of alternative fish , and 27% said they would dislike The Texture. 27 percent said they had never seen plant-based seafood in a grocery store.

“First and foremost, consumers will buy alternative seafood when it tastes good,” said Azoff.