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Aqua cultured

When it comes to frozen fish and seafood, health-conscious consumers are reeled in by innovation and sustainability

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Surf or turf? As many busy Canadians look to cut back on red meat and reap the purported health benefits of seafood, frozen fish and seafood are pushing further into the spotlight.

Demand for frozen seafood steadily increased in the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, according to MarketResearch.com. And recent Nielsen data shows sales for this category grew by 1.5% to more than $876 million in Canada in the latest 52 weeks ending Oct. 12, 2019. Frozen haddock, specifically, grew by 7.2% to $78 million, while frozen scallops rose by 12% to $39 million.

“The growth in the frozen seafood category is being fuelled by gen Xers and boomers,” says Dana McCauley, director of new venture creation at the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office. “Some of them are being told by their doctors to lose weight and eat less red meat,” she says, noting millennials are also quite open to seafood. “They were brought up on sushi so their childhood fish experiences were more positive than an older person’s might have been.”

Also add to the mix: a robust economy that makes premium seafood more accessible, a focus on heart health and the benefits of omega-3, keto diets, and the introduction of innovative easy-prep seafood options. As Glenn Grandy, senior director, seafood with Mississauga, Ont.’s Tree of Life explains: “From a protein standpoint, seafood offers consumers good value and generally a healthier option. Our consumer research also told us consumers like the variety that frozen seafood offers them in terms of species and convenience.”All those factors present great opportunities for retailers to increase sales—but it may take a bit of consumer education to truly capitalize on them. “I’d like to see more retailers calling out the health benefits of increasing seafood consumption and, ideally, designate more real estate to the category in weekly flyers,” says Grandy.

McCauley also suggests in-store sampling of new products, and training staff to become more knowledgeable about seafood products. Matt Dean Pettit, founder and executive chef of Toronto-based value-added frozen seafood company Matty’s Seafood, agrees: “It comes down to education and more in-store signage for consumers. Grocers and brands need to continue to teach [consumers] that frozen products aren’t necessarily lesser quality. Most frozen seafood—especially value-added products—are high quality, as companies use more sustainable fishing methods, better technology and super-premium ingredients flash frozen to lock in freshness.”

Those value-adds—including ready- to-cook seasoned, spiced, marinated or breaded fish, which may also be part of a frozen dish or meal kit—continue to be popular. Matty’s Seafood has had success with its lobster mac ’n cheese and its recently-launched tuna poke kits with Ocean Wise ahi tuna, a mixed veggie pack (pineapple, edamame, sweet corn and onions) and ponzu sauce. A fresh wave of updated classics, such as burgers and sausages made from salmon, shrimp and crab, have also hit the market.

The popularity of value-adds is sending a clear signal that consumers want convenience and are willing to experiment; but the types of fish being featured in many of these products shows they still often want those tried-and-true fish species. “Cod and haddock are the top performers, but we believe this is just because they are the most familiar,” explains Grandy, adding, “We have introduced Icelandic wolf fish, a great fish that has a similar texture to halibut but at roughly half the cost.”

For the Janes frozen fish brand, long-standing favourites remain strong. “Pollock is very popular among consumers who are looking for value, while haddock is the premier choice for consumers who are looking for premium products,” explains Paul Craft, vice-president, marketing at Sofina Foods.

Joe Nacevic, category manager, seafood at Longo’s, highlights shrimp as a top seller (and Nielsen data backs that up, with frozen shrimp sales at nearly $344 million in the past year—the highest seller in the entire frozen seafood category). Up next, says Nacevic, there will be less heavily breaded products, more unique flavours and healthier coatings.

Sustainability remains a hot topic and something today’s customers now expect. Nacevic says it’s important, as a grocer, to work with companies that take all the necessary steps to ensure their seafood products meet certain standards. As a manufacturer, Pettit is “all in” when it comes to sustainability, and lauds Ontario supplier Planet Shrimp for its state-of-the-art aquaculture practices to produce Ocean Wise farmed shrimp. “The results are fantastic,” says Pettit, who predicts more sustainable, value-added seafood products will be filling grocers’ freezers soon.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’December 2019/January 2020 issue.

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