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Alaska Fish Factor: boom in foolproof fish kits

Laine Welch
13 August 2017, at 8:43am

Alaska aims to get in on the growing popularity of home meal kits that will deliver seafood directly to American kitchens.

The kits generally offer a subscription-based service where customers order weekly meals, based on how many people they plan to feed and their food preferences. The kits include portioned, high quality ingredients with foolproof cooking instructions and can be delivered within hours or overnight to nearly all locations. Many grocery stores also are providing in-store options that don’t involve delivery.

The kits typically cost $60 to $70 per week for three, two-person meals. Since 2012 such kits have grown into a $2.2 billion business, according to the Chicago-based consulting firm Pentallect, which predicts annual growth at 25-30 percent over the next five years.

The numbers could go higher with Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods and its July 6 announcement that it will enter the meal kit arena using a trademarked logo of “We do the prep. You be the chef.”

Ocean Beauty Seafoods, which operates six processing plants in Alaska, is already in the game, said Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing.

“We’ve been involved in home meal replacements (HMRs) since they started in the 1990s and this is a natural extension for us,” he said, adding that meal kits provide “a different experience.”   

Whereas HMR’s offered selections of ready to eat items like pot pies, salads or pasta dishes, meal kits provide a different experience. Companies such as Blue Apron, Home Fresh or Plated have gone beyond convenience and hooked into peoples’ desire to cook with high-quality ingredients, Sunderland said.  

“The convenience comes in the sourcing of the raw ingredients, but it brings the creativity and the home cooking into the mix. You are actually getting a particular experience which is very fulfilling to a lot of people. I think the insight into that is quite great,” he said.     

Advances in packaging technology and logistics also play a big part in the meal kit popularity by taking the difficulty out of delivery.

“We refer to it as the last mile,” Sunderland explained. “The minute you put a frozen product on a delivery truck the cold chain is no longer maintained. That’s always been a deal killer for a lot of this. But with the advent of oxygen permeable packaging films you can allow a frozen product to thaw out and still have it be food safe. That’s been an enormous change in the market because it allows you to do something you couldn’t do before.”

The meal kit concept also reduces waste.

“The fish or the meat is portioned just right, the vegetables are portioned to a particular dinner and recipe and the waste stream is greatly diminished. I think that’s appealing to people as well,” he added.

But it is the customer focus on high quality ingredients that plays into Alaska’s hands, Sunderland believes.

“Over the years Alaska has been constantly improving the quality of the raw materials and the finished goods all the way through the system. That puts us in a great position to take advantage of this,” he said.

Also, the ability for home kit providers to rotate products also Alaska to capitalize on the timing of various fisheries throughout the year.

“That can match up really well with how Alaska product is managed in inventory,” Sunderland said.

Another plus: for decades research has shown that 65 percent of Americans eat seafood only at restaurants because they claim they don’t know how to cook it properly. Home meal kits will bring fish right into their kitchens.

“That’s the key,” Sunderland said. “When they get top quality fish with very specific cooking directions, it maximizes the likelihood that they are going to be successful and they will order it again. It is about as perfect as it can be.” 

Fish funds: Trump cuts thwarted

Alaska’s fisheries and related programs got a mix of budget guts and gains for 2018 before Congress left for its five-week recess.

On the hit list: total funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget was set at $5.6 billion - an $85 million cut – but far less than the $900 million cut proposed by Donald Trump. 

Senate appropriators also rejected Trump’s call for a 32 percent cut for climate, weather and oceans research, and instead provided a budget of nearly $480 million for those programs.

Also rejected were plans to gut the national Sea Grant program which supports over 20,000 jobs and nearly 3,000 businesses. Sea Grant was funded at $65 million, a $2 million increase.

Coastal Zone Management grants also were fully funded, and fisheries data collection, surveys and stock assessments were boosted to nearly $165 million.

Regional fisheries councils and commissions also received robust funding of $36 million.

Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Funds were maintained at $65 million, and Pacific Salmon Treaty activities received a $2 million increase to $14 million.

Weather satellite programs funded at nearly $420 million reflect a $90 million increase, $239 million above the Trump administration’s request.

The Senate appropriations bill also provides $75 million to begin building a new NOAA survey vessel, $11 million for addressing ocean acidification, and an extra $3 million to expedite electronic monitoring programs. 

King closure

Fishing for king salmon was shut down on August 10 in Southeast Alaska for all commercial and sport users. The unprecedented move stems from record low returns, resulting in the worst commercial harvest since 1975.    

“We felt compelled to do as much as we could to look toward the future,” said Charlie Swanton, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner. “Ocean conditions don’t look all that promising in 2018, and we want to do whatever we can to turn that around into 2018 and beyond.”      

The king salmon closure will be reviewed in September.