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February 1, 2022updated 09 Feb 2022 9:35am

“We don’t need first-mover advantage; it’s about getting it right” – Maarten Geraets on Thai Union’s alternative-seafood plans

Alternative-seafood is still very much a niche offering, despite the investment cash flooding in.

By Andy Coyne

Although the growth in sales of plant-based meat has eased in some markets in recent quarters, such products have become a regular weekly shopping item for many consumers.

Alternative seafood, by contrast, is still very much a niche offering, despite the investment cash backing start-ups in the category.

While there are products available in stores, some retailers have rowed back and cut ranges and the jury is out on whether the manufacturers have got it right in terms of taste and texture.

Even The Good Food Institute (GFI), the Washington DC-based non-profit organisation that advocates for the consumption of alternative-protein products, has said: “There is still much work to do to scale alternative seafood into a viable solution for ocean protection.”

However, the world’s largest seafood businesses are eyeing the market and some, including Thailand’s Thai Union Group, have entered the fray in a meaningful way and are intent on making alt-seafood a viable and profitable proposition.

The man leading Thai Union’s charge is Maarten Geraets, managing director for alternative proteins at the Bangkok-based business.

After more than a decade career with Nestlé, including a stint as general manager of its foods business in south Asia, he joined Thai Union nine months ago to head up its push into alternative proteins with a particular emphasis on faux-seafood products. And, given the resources the John West and Chicken of the Sea brands owner is putting into the project, Geraets is confident of success.

Thai Union is not a newcomer to the alternative-protein space. In October 2019, it launched a US$30m venture fund to back “innovative companies that are developing breakthrough technologies in food-tech”. The fund was set up to invest in alternative protein, functional nutrition and value chain technology.

In July last year, Thai Union invested in Israel-based cell-based meat firm Aleph Farms as part of a $105m Series B funding round. A month earlier, Thai Union had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with local business V Foods to develop and expand its plant-based food offering. Under the terms of that deal, the companies are using Thai Union’s manufacturing facilities to make V Foods’ existing products and any new lines it develops. Thai Union has also invested in BlueNalu, a US firm developing cell-based seafood.

Such a backdrop has allowed Geraets to hit the ground running, he suggests. “Three years ago, Thai Union set up the global innovation centre in Bangkok, which has a staff of about 100-odd scientists and engineers,” Geraets says.

“Last year, I was brought on board to formally create an alternative-protein business unit for human food. The team is still being built. We are creating a global innovation team but also working with operating companies worldwide. It is embedded infrastructure.

“It’s a close-knit team in Bangkok working closely with the corporate venture business arm. We are liaising with that in terms of the investments and start-ups it is involved with. We try to help these start-ups but they bring new things to the table as well.”

Focus on plant-based alternatives

What Geraets brings to the table is a career-long focus on product development. “Most of my career has been on the innovation side of the business, working in R&D. innovation and bringing new products to market. That’s my experience and also what I enjoy,” he says.

And now his focus is on using that experience in plant-based seafood. “To be clear, our alternative proteins business is very much focused on plant-based solutions. Fermented, insects and cell-based are all options but our play is very much focused on plant-based seafood, which makes sense,” he says. “We have a lot of expertise in seafood that we can leverage as we go to market.”

Geraets says Thai Union has employed a model of “open innovation”, relying on multiple stakeholders. It could be through links with particular suppliers or owners of commercialised products. In terms of product development, the business is looking at both branded and private-label offerings. In the case of the former, Thai Union launched the OMG Meat brand last year under which the company is selling plant-based meat, fish nuggets and crab dumplings.

“We have plant-based tuna available at 375 stores in Europe as we speak. This could be soy-based or pea-based and is mostly a private-label proposition,” Geraets says. “We are about to launch shrimp in Asia under the brand OMG Meat. This is launching in Thailand in the appetiser space.”

Whether the OMG Meat brand will be expanded into other regions for faux-seafood products is “still confidential”, Geraets says but there is a clear focus on its home region.

“European markets like the UK, Germany, Netherlands as well as the US are ahead of the curve with this [plant-based] but 60% of the world’s seafood is consumed in Asia,” he says.

But whether it is Asia or elsewhere, branded or private-label, Geraets knows that the market will not take off if manufacturers can’t get the taste and texture of plant-based seafood right. That’s not to mention perfecting the right fishy/sea smell and deciding which species of fish to emulate.

“Seafood has imposed a bit of a challenge as it has more textures to tackle than, say, chicken. But, with our broad seafood understanding, we are well-placed to create alternatives,” he says. “Meat is about eight years ahead of us [in alt-seafood]. I always say that the hard work has been done by the meat industry. Hopefully, we can follow.”

And he is not concerned other manufacturers have beaten Thai Union to the punch, the likes of US-based Gathered Foods with its Good Catch brand and the UK’s Birds Eye (owned by Nomad Foods) with its Green Cuisine range, which includes Fishless Fingers.

“I’m not worried about it. Competition is good for the industry. To grow the category, we need to make more noise. We don’t need first-mover advantage – it is about getting it right,” Geraets says. “There is a huge opportunity to follow what is happening with meat but the category needs to prove itself.”

Prove itself to flexitarians that is because it is those consumers, who dip in and out of meat consumption, that will drive this category as they have plant-based meat.

“It is the toughest audience,” Geraets says. “If they don’t appreciate the plant-based version they will flex back to what they are used to the next day.”

And products also have to be at the right price, he acknowledges. “We need to drive skills and volumes to bring prices down,” he says. “The price gap is not as wide with seafood as it is with low-cost chicken [with a plant-based alternative] but it is a big challenge for the industry at large.”

Confidence alt-seafood can be big fish

However, he is convinced there is massive potential for growth in alt-seafood if companies such as Thai Union get it right, partly because they are starting from such a low base. “Alternative seafood was worth $30m-50m in 2020 on the global retail side. It is miniscule. It is less than 0.1% of the global seafood market.”

The US market for seafood alternatives grew 23% in 2020 but was only valued at US$12m, while conventional seafood was worth “tens of billions of dollars, according to the GFI.

But despite this, the GFI made faux-seafood one of the alternative protein trends to watch this year. “The first half of 2021 saw record investments into alternative seafood totalling $116m, surpassing 2020’s total investments,” it said. “More than 87 companies now make seafood from plants, microbes, and animal cells and leading plant-based manufacturers are expanding their seafood SKUs. In 2022, expect plant-based seafood options to expand in restaurants, grocery stores, and online marketplaces.”

This chimes with Geraets’ ambitions. “We hope to hit $30m in sales in five years. I think that’s a stick in the sand. There are opportunities in private-label and branded,” he says. “That would still be a small fraction of Thai Union sales.”

The more immediate plans would seem to centre on its private-label offering. “We have strong capability on the manufacturing side and distribution and sales sides. We can put that to use with partners we work with worldwide – we have an enormous amount of infrastructure we can leverage,” Geraets says.

Such a move would also help to develop the category, he believes.

“I am a strong believer in building an eco-system in this space and we can’t do that alone. We are actively talking to people across the value chain.”

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