Alt-Seafood Splash #7 - Thai Union on Building an Alt-Seafood Ecosystem

Creating an ocean of opportunity for alternative seafoods and much more in this exclusive interview with Thai Union.

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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we interview Thai Union to learn about their alt-seafood ecosystem. Thai Union is one of the world's leading seafood processing companies. They want to use their considerable resources to create an ocean of opportunity for alt-seafood innovators.

In today’s post:

  • Introducing Thai Union

  • About Thai Union’s voyage into the alt-seafood space

  • Thai Union is creating an alt-seafood ecosystem

  • How Thai Union connect the dots in the emerging alt-seafood space

  • Which companies Thai Union are looking to partner with

  • Where is the alt-seafood market headed next?

    • The route to market for alt-seafood

    • What’s blocking the route?

  • Fresh insights from Thai Union’s own brand of alt-fish

Introducing Thai Union

Thai Union was established in Thailand in 1977. The company originally made canned tuna products. Since then, they have grown to become the world’s largest canned tuna processor. Their business portfolio now centres on contract manufacturing. They also develop products and manage an extensive portfolio of brands. Thai Union are actively investing in alternative seafood to help conserve the ocean's resources.

Gerben Kamps, in charge of Global Business Development for alternative seafood, tells us more.

Thai Union’s Voyage into the Alt-Seafood Space

Gerben is part of Thai Union’s dedicated alternative protein business development unit. Thai Union established the team in 2021. They aim to expand alternative seafood as a major strategic pillar of their business.

Gerben explains Thai Union's three motivations for entering the alternative seafood space. Need, opportunity and choice.

The world needs alternative sources of protein. Our global population will reach 10 billion by 2050. There aren’t enough resources on planet earth to meet the protein demands to feed so many. In its current state, we’d need two planets to be able to produce enough.

Secondly, there’s also a growing number of flexitarians. They demand alternatives besides animal and fish protein sources. This demand is a driver of opportunity.

Lastly, we lead in the seafood space, so it makes sense that people would come to us for alternative seafood. Alternative seafood is an additional opportunity. By providing them, we will draw new people into the greater seafood category. At the same time we will provide extra consumption moments for existing customers.

Establishing an Ecosystem to expand the alt-seafood market

So how exactly do Thai Union intend to develop the market for alternative seafood?

While Thai Union has its own line of B2C alternative seafood products, they are not a primary focus.

OMG Meat is an opportunity for us to have some skin in the game and learn about the alt-seafood category.

Thai Union wants to use the insights gained from having their own brand to support their partners.

The vast majority of Thai Union’s business is contract manufacturing. The way we will unlock the alt-seafood market globally is through B2B partnerships.

Thai Union and its major affiliates have an annual production capacity of 820,000 metric tons of seafood. The size of our manufacturing footprint means we can help the alt-seafood industry scale.

Thai Union’s ambition is to build an ecosystem for alternative seafood. As the world’s largest seafood processor, it makes sense they use their resources to help alt-seafood innovators thrive.

We want to co-develop and co-create, with the ultimate goal of co-manufacturing for others. We have three platforms on which we want to focus at first: tuna, shrimp and crab alternatives.

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Gerben explains Thai Union is partnering with all the different players in the space. From academia and startups to suppliers, legacy FMCG companies, and everyone in between.  In doing so, Thai Union is able to connect the dots between all the players who are forming the category.

Connecting the dots in the emerging alt-seafood space…

From startups….

We have established several initiatives to support open innovation.  

Firstly, SPACE-F is the first global FoodTech startup incubator and accelerator in Thailand. It is a partnership between Thai Union, the National Innovation Agency, and Mahidol University. SPACE-F is also supported by industry-leading corporates.

The program brings together leading FoodTech startups and corporates through an innovative mentorship, business networking and collaboration program.

There are some brilliant innovators who have developed some very good minimum viable products or prototypes. However, we see it's very difficult to scale up.

One of the biggest challenges facing alternative protein startups is scaling production. This is exactly where Thai Union comes into play.

We embrace open innovation and invite all players within the ecosystem to join with us. To join with ingredient suppliers and to take part in our incubator. Or, if they're already at a further stage, to come to us and together figure out how Thai Union can help to produce and to scale up the industrialization of those alternative seafood innovations.

…To Legacy players

Besides support for startups, Thai Union seeks to partner with legacy players.

We seek partnerships from FMCG players around the world. Our retailers and distribution partners around the world are telling us the same thing. A lot of innovations came to market over the last two years. Some of them succeeded, but also a lot of them did not deliver on taste, texture, price, nutrition, and convenience. Now, those partners are asking us to help legacy FMCG players enter this category. They can put their operational efficiencies behind it. Put extra marketing dollars behind there. This will really unlock the category with consumers.

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As we discussed in a previous interview, support for alt-seafood from large players can open the category to consumers. Technological and financial resources are key ingredients for the development of seafood alternatives. Cultured fish is already benefitting in this respect. But Thai Union wants to do the same for plant-based and fermentation-based products too.

Who is Thai Union seeking to partner with?

Alt-seafood is an ocean of opportunity and Thai Union are committed to supporting players to unlock and grow the market. With that in mind, we asked Gerben to tell us a little more about the partners he’s looking for.

It’s very broad. We wear different hats in the ecosystem. From a global business development point of view, I seek partnerships with food service operators. Also, food service chains around the world. As mentioned, I very much seek partnerships with FMCG legacy brands to co-create and co-develop.

When it comes down to our incubator and acceleration program, we seek early-stage and proprietary startups and innovations.

Thai Union’s ecosystem is already having a significant impact on the world of alt-seafood.

We already have partnerships with the majority of the players in the alternative protein industry in terms of co-development, co-manufacturing, and other alliances. Later in the year we hope to be able to share more about partnerships in the exciting alternative protein space. Keep your eye on the news about this.

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Where is the alternative seafood market headed next?

With talk of the future, we asked Gerben about what we can expect for alt-seafood going forward.

The alt-seafood industry is still nascent. Its evolution will come in three stages. The first is what’s available now, plant-based. Then fermentation-based, followed by cell-based fish proliferation.

Gerben explains that Thai Union are currently focused on plant-based products for commercialization. Their innovation centre is working with partners on phases two and three. But how will consumer appetite for alternative seafood increase?

The route to market for alt-fish

To answer this question, Gerben tells us the route to market for alt-proteins is key.

Let’s look at the consumer funnel for alternative protein. Foodservice plays an incredibly important role. Most consumers’ first interaction with alternative products is not in the home. The alternative hamburger available in quick-service restaurants, for example, was pivotal for driving consumer interest in alternatives. We believe this will be the first touch point for seafood alternatives too. We’re looking for food service partners to initiate adoption in foodservice.

After restaurants come consumers eating alternative seafood at home. This is a tougher market to crack according to Gerben.

Our research shows people are insecure about working with alt-seafood as an ingredient at home. This is where legacy FMCG players come in. They offer brands of ready-to-cook, convenient products. There’s a huge opportunity to embed alternatives into products consumers are familiar with here.

Introducing alternatives to consumers in ready-meals is a strategy we’re seeing alt-seafood players start to use already. The last piece in the alternative seafood puzzle is

as ingredients themselves. For this to happen, alt-seafood must be tasty, nutritious, affordable and convenient. But here lies a challenge…

What’s blocking the route?

Taste, nutrition, price and convenience. All these elements that Gerben mentions as crucial are also potential blockers for the market.

There are four challenges the alt-seafood industry currently faces. Taste and texture, which at the moment is about finding the right protein sources. Nutrition is a second aspect. Cleaner labels, and fewer, but healthier ingredients are a must for alt-seafood.

Then there’s affordability and convenience. Gerben is excited by the promise of these benefits to expand the market for alt-seafood.

Once price reaches parity, alt-seafood will truly be an alternative option to seafood. We’re not far off for the three platforms we mentioned before. We estimate canned tuna alternatives for example will hit parity in the next 2 - 3 years.

Affordability drives consumption. It also means supermarkets have no reason to separate alternatives from regular seafood. When alternatives sit next to regular seafood, this will signal to consumers a new and expanded seafood category.

Convenience is also a major point for alt-seafood. There are a lot of ready-to-eat seafood products that can incorporate alternatives. I believe this is a promising approach for alt-seafood. It's what we've found with our OMG Meat line.

As our interviews with SeaSpire and Azuma Foods confirmed, these are urgent challenges to overcome. Success here represents a sizable opportunity according to the Good Food Institute. Alt-seafood sits at 0.1% of the market share in the U.S., the most advanced market for alt-products. But capturing a similar share of the seafood market as alt-meat did the meat market, is a 220 million dollar opportunity.

We hope for the same level of dollar share as meat and dairy have. We as Thai Union are very well equipped to play a role in the ecosystem we described before. We’re very optimistic about the ocean of opportunity.

Insights from Thai Union’s own brand of alt-fish

In support of expanding the market for alt-seafood, Thai Union has developed a line of alt-seafoods to explore the category. OMG Meat, introduced in our earlier post, is a range of plant-based seafood tailored to the Asian palette. It is currently sold in APAC. Additionally, some OMG-inspired products are available as a base for further local adaptation around the world.

First, we’re focussed on our ecosystem. OMG Meat is an initiative to have skin in the game and learn and test the market.

We’ve learned several key insights through OMG Meat. 80% of OMG Meats consumers are females between the ages of 25 - 45, for example. In APAC, consumers are primarily attracted by the novelty of alternative seafood. This is different to other markets such as Europe, which is more sustainability-driven. In the U.S., health is the focus.

Thai Union shares insights like these amongst their ecosystem to support the growth of the whole faux-fish industry. They recognize the key to unlocking all the white space in the alt-seafood market is collaboration, not competition.

That’s all folks

We hope you enjoyed learning about the great work being done by Thai Union and their partners to develop the alternative seafood market globally. We’d like to thank Gerben Kamps and Thai Union for supporting this interview.

See you next Tuesday for an extra special post….

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