UK seafood consumption crisis
Soaring prices have led the UK population to eat only half the recommended amount of seafood, reports Jason Holland.
While a cursory glance might suggest that all is well in UK seafood economy; at £9.6 billion, some 16% more than the previous year, the 2017 value of sales were at an unprecedented level. However, this record total only tells part of the story, and closer scrutiny finds the sector is actually experiencing a fast falling consumption trend.
Marcus Coleman, chief executive of Seafish, the UK seafood industry body, told delegates at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB) Annual Conference in London that while UK seafood sales in retail and restaurants increased by 5% and 30% respectively, to £3.7 billion and £4 billion, and a further £1.9 billion worth of seafood products were exported by the country last year, the seafood sector is falling foul of stagnant demand and strong competition from other protein and non-protein foods.
A lot of the growth seen in both retail and foodservice is down to the high price of seafood, he said. Indeed, recent Seafish data confirms that in retail alone, the average price of seafood over the past twelve months had soared by more than 7%.
In volume terms, most of the seafood consumed in the UK market is purchased through the multiple retail channel, with the amount sold falling steadily in recent years to a level of 316,000 tonnes. The volume sold through commercial foodservice stood at just 151,000 tonnes, although this represented an increase of more than 15% compared with 2016. Consequently, the UK’s per capita consumption of seafood has now fallen to a level of just 1.08 portions per week, with Seafish estimating that just one portion of oil-rich fish is consumed every three weeks.
“People are spending more but buying seafood less often,” Marcus Coleman confirmed. “Price is having a huge impact on performance. Per capita consumption hasn’t been this bad since 1982; the drop-off is quite shocking.”
Within retail, the total volume of seafood sales over the last 10 years has fallen by 16.6%, and within that, frozen and ambient sales have dropped by 24.4% and 42.4% respectively. The only growth has come in fresh seafood purchases, which have climbed 11.8%. And to the SAGB audience, Coleman highlighted that total shellfish sales over the decade fell by 14%.
To complicate matters further; despite the overall decline, the UK’s preference for the so-called “big five” species is increasing. In 2017, consumers ate 121,153 tonnes of cod (+5% compared with 2016), 120,563 tonnes of tuna (+4.7%), 92,860 tonnes of salmon (+14.3%), 44,739 tonnes of haddock (+9.1%) and 41,249 tonnes of warmwater shrimp and prawns (+18.6%). The sector is also largely dependent on post-family and older generations. Indeed these demographics are now buying more than two and a half times the amount of seafood products that pre-family and family are, and in the case of shellfish it’s three times as much.
The findings follow the launch of the new Seafish Corporate Plan for 2018-2021, the third such document to be published focusing on the vision for the UK seafood industry and the key challenges that it faces.
This latest edition acknowledges there are a number of challenges impeding the sector at present. The changing political, economic and regulatory landscape, largely as a result of Brexit, is causing numerous headaches, while on the production side, seafood is competing with other food production industries to attract and retain a suitably skilled workforce as well as addressing complex challenges around workplace safety. Furthermore, the industry is having to source sustainable raw materials in an increasingly competitive global market, whilst also facing heightened consumer concern over practices that could compromise the welfare of society and the environment.
However, through the Seafish board’s engagement with the seafood industry via its three sector panels (Domestic and Export; Processing and Import; and Consumer and Supply Chain), the plan found some common ground in that increasing consumption was seen as a key driver of the sector’s future success. Specifically, it was determined that getting more people to eat more seafood products would be positive in terms of job security and creation, business profitability, community support, as well as for enhancing sustainability and for responsible sourcing.
Funded by a levy income of around £8 million from the first-sale of all seafood products in the UK, Coleman said that Seafish is limited to the number of projects it can undertake to tackle the declining consumption problem. However, he added that the authority believes a number of its campaigns are indeed working and could help to turn the tide. Chiefly, these are its Fish is the Dish programme that educates and encourages consumers to eat more seafood, Fish2aWeek that promotes the health benefits of eating these products, as well as the annual Seafood Week and Fish & Chips Awards. The potential for launching a new annual Shellfish Week is also being evaluated with the first week of March 2019 pencilled for the inaugural event.
Beyond this, the authority is educating on a local level through schools, chefs, seafood ambassadors and the Billingsgate Seafood School, while also promoting the positive reputation and credibility of the industry. At a corporate level, to further understand today’s consumers, the authority is informing new product development while exploring the science and psychology of online retailing. It is also supporting and influencing relevant policy via the Seafood 2040 strategic framework for England.
“It does seem a bit of a challenge, but we are committed to carrying on doing the things that we believe are working. We need to do more to raise consumption levels again,” Marcus Coleman said.
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