Plastic straws are the enemy du jour at the moment. This heartbreaking video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up his or her nostril has resulted in multi-national corporations pledging to ban single-use plastic straws.
This is a laudable cause, but on its own, it’s like sticking a band aid over a bullet wound instead of performing surgery to remove the offending object to ensure it does no more damage. Our oceans are, indeed, under threat, but not just from microplastics.
Overfishing has become catastrophic. A report by Nature Communications in 2016 found that far more fish have been caught globally between 1950 and 2010 than was admitted, leading to a sharp decline in the number of fish in the sea. Industrial fisheries using large commercial machinery to trawl the ocean bed result in millions of other sea animals, including whales, dolphins and turtles, getting trapped and killed in nets – known as ‘bycatch’. Aquaculture – essentially the factory farming of fish – poses a host of health and environmental hazards.
Meanwhile, slave labor, which is particularly rife in the shrimp industry, poses ethical problems, as does the issue of animal cruelty, something often overlooked when it comes to sea creatures. Scientific evidence has found that fish are sentient and feel both physical and emotional pain, as do crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans.
Fortunately there are a group of entrepreneurs stepping up to provide a practical, sustainable and cruelty-free solution to these problems: Plant-based alternatives to popular seafood products.
California-based Sophie’s Kitchen led the field when it launched in 2011 with a range of plant-based canned tuna, frozen crab cakes, fish fillets and shrimp, along with frozen and refrigerated smoked salmon. The products are free from soy and gluten, are non-GMO and kosher. Key ingredients are konjac (also known as elephant yam), which is popular in Japanese cuisine, and yellow pea.
Founder Eugene Wang had been making vegetarian products for more than 25 years, but decided to specialize in vegan seafood when his young daughter (who the company is named after) developed a serious allergy to shellfish.
Being an SME with no outside investment, Sophie’s Kitchen was unable to keep up with the demand for its frozen products in US stores, so decided to focus on its Vegan Toona canned fish alternatives that come in Sea Salt and Black Pepper varieties. Currently available nationwide in Whole Foods, Sprouts and a plethora of independent stores, and stocked next to real tuna, sales of these products increased by 72% between the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018. “Some stores cross-merchandise the cans in the vegan, plant-based, refrigerated section next to vegan mayonnaise too,” says Wang. “It gives the consumer the idea that these Toonas can be used just like real tuna.”
Wang, who is currently working on product development with two universities in Asia, is keen to position Sophie’s Kitchen as a clean-label brand. “Unlike some meat alternatives, we only use real food ingredients,” he says. “Nothing is lab-grown because we believe that nature provides all the components for great food. The most influential thing about the clean-label movement is the fact that it forced us, as manufacturers, to take a more responsible and transparent approach to the ingredients we use. As retailers and consumers are educated, we move toward positive change. It’s a win-win for everyone.”