Sunday, March 16, 2014

SENA14: How Can We Increase Seafood Consumption in the US?

"Throw a lucky man in the sea, and he will come up with a fish in his mouth."
--Arabian Proverb

I have been continuously urging people to eat more seafood because it not only tastes good but is also a healthy food which has been scientifically proven to reduce your chances of heart disease by about 1/3. However, far too many people still are not eating enough seafood. This can be considered a health crisis, a failure of people to take a simple step towards a healthier lifestyle. We urgently need ways to turn this around, and find ways to get more people to eat more seafood.

One of my objectives at the Seafood Expo North America (SENA) was to learn ways to encourage more consumers to choose seafood. To that end, I attended one of the conference sessions which directly dealt with this issue: How Can We Increase Seafood Consumption in the US? Moderated by Richard Stavis, of Stavis Seafoods in Boston, the panelists included: Bob Hartman, Seafood Director of Demoulas Market BasketDavid Blessing, Culinary Arts Director at Longwood Lifestyle & EventsMarie Zhang, Chief Food Innovation Officer at Long John Silver’s; and Linda Cornish, Executive Director of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.

The session began with some disturbing statistics, some of which I have discussed before. Seafood consumption in 2013 decreased 4% from the previous year, which now makes seven consecutive years of decreasing consumption. Only about 20% of consumers eat seafood twice a week, about 8 ounces, and the average American only eats 14.4 pounds of seafood annually, when they should be eating at least 26 pounds. Low seafood consumption is blamed for 84,000 deaths in the U.S. and 1.4 million globally.

After outlining these depressing figures, each of the panelists explained what they were doing to encourage consumers to eat more seafood. However, I think it would have been more beneficial if some time was taken to explore the reasons why seafood consumption continues to decrease and why consumers don't choose seafood enough. Unless we understand the reasons behind this issue, we cannot move forward with plans to change the situation. Some of the reasons did end up being addressed in the later Q&A session, but it would have been better if presented earlier in the discussion.

The only exception was a brief mention that media stories discussing the risks of eating seafood outnumber articles about the benefits by about 4 to 1. That is an issue that was more directly addressed at last year's Expo at the conference session Debunking the Risk Myths: Seafood's Success Story. During the Q&A session, I raised this issue again, asking what could be done to counter these negative media articles, and the primary response was "Education." The media seems to think that stories about seafood risks are more newsworthy, or at least they think such scare stories sell more newspapers and magazines. The public needs to understand the context of seafood risks, and how the benefits of consumption often far outweigh any risks.

Now, back to the panelists and the heart of their speeches.

Bob Hartman, Seafood Director of Demoulas Market Basket, said that the key of their success in selling seafood is "commitment," which extends from the top to the bottom. They have been increasing their support of seafood, making larger counters, doing more staff training, carrying a larger variety of seafood, and constructed a new, state of art, distribution center. With 70 stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, their seafood program is large, and they usually carry about 30-50 fresh seafood items, dependent on the season, and about 200 frozen items. Bob also stated they are "dedicated to quality" yet they are also committed to keeping prices down to make it affordable for all. They have been conducting seafood demonstrations at their stores, allowing their customers to taste seafood, and also showing them how easy it can be to cook fish. In the end, Bob said they need to try everything, to keep an open mind, as you never know what might work.

David Blessing, Culinary Arts Director at Longwood Lifestyle & Events, has worked with vendors to try to get local, seasonal and sustainable seafood for the events they hold. He wants their banquets to feel more like a restaurant menu, and not the usual fare you find at such events. When customers ask him about serving certain seafood which is not available, he enjoys relating the story of the seafood, explaining why it is not available, such as if it is a seasonal item, or maybe something that is not sustainable. This educates such people, and hopefully they will share their new knowledge with others too.

Marie Zhang, Chief Food Innovation Officer at Long John Silver’s, is new to her position, and with 1200 units worldwide, she has a large responsibility. For the last two years, the goal of the company has been to increase seafood consumption. Marie has a two-pronged plan to accomplish this goal, keying on a marketing plan and new products. Her marketing plan includes disseminating the message that their seafood is sustainable and healthy. So far, they have received very positive feedback from their customers as well as others in the industry. As for new products, they want to ensure they all are healthy, tasty and affordable. They have been adding new cooking styles, making seafood a key ingredient in all platforms, and increasing the varieties of seafood they sell. So far, it seems to be working well for them.

Linda Cornish, Executive Director of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, was the only panelist who wasn't involved in selling seafood. She discussed her efforts to better educate consumers on all of the health benefits of seafood consumption. I heard her last year speak on this issue and wrote about a recent article she wrote on the issue too. She makes for a persuasive advocate and you cannot deny the facts about the significant health benefits of seafood.

After the panelist talks, Richard Stavis mentioned that there had been a commonality between the four panelists, that all had emphasized education and training. More fish vendors, supermarkets and restaurants are educating their customers than ever before. Linda mentioned that she sees similarities between the wine and seafood industries, that the information foundation is similar. I thought this was a compelling analogy. In both situations, consumers need to start with basic information, and then grow from there. You shouldn't overwhelm them with highly technical information. And I would say that like wine, you want consumers to eventually broaden their horizons and try all sorts of different types of seafood.

During the Q&A, the issue was raised that seafood consumption in the U.S. is often geographically based. For example, it was stated that in the Portland, Oregon, area, the average person consumes about 23 pounds of seafood, far above the national average. Hawaii may be even higher, closer to 30 pounds annually. The main target audience for increasing seafood consumption is about 30% of the people who eat fish sometimes, just not enough. Part of the issue is that many consumers seem to have difficulty preparing seafood at home, so educating them on cooking techniques and recipes is important.

Richard commented that their goal is to create a generation of seafood eaters, and Bob added that now is the perfect time to promote seafood as beef and pork prices have been on the rise, making seafood more appealing. As I have mentioned several times before, high cost is an important barrier to consumers purchasing seafood, so this could be the time for greater seafood promotion.

You can look forward to more posts about these issues during the next several days, as I explore those matters with others at the Expo.

"Fishing is a pleasure of retirement, yet the angler has the power to let the fish live or die."
--Hung Tzu-ch'eng

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