Dr Martin Jaffa asks: has the pandemic reversed the long decline in fresh fish consumption?
A new report commissioned by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) would seem to suggest that home consumption of fish and seafood has risen during the ongoing pandemic. They believe that this has been fuelled by a move away from red meat in search of healthier forms of protein. The survey of US consumers found that 26% bought seafood for the first time, whilst about 35% have upped their seafood consumption from pre-pandemic levels. ASMI say that consumers are now enjoying seafood at home once a week and if they have not already increased consumption, they plan to do so during 2021.
ASMI found that 48% of consumers are trying to actively increase their consumption of fish and seafood, whereas only 23% say the same for beef. By comparison, 26% of consumers say that they are trying to reduce the amount of beef they eat whilst the number is just 7% for fish and seafood.
I have to admit that I am always a little sceptical of surveys about fish and seafood consumption, and even more so when the survey has been commissioned by a marketing group. My experience is that what consumers say and what consumers do are two very different things.
Rather than reply on how consumers respond, I am more interested in whether fish and seafood sales have increased or decreased as a consequence of any campaign or event. And in terms of “event”, there can be none bigger than the Covid-19 pandemic.
ASMI do not say by how much fish and seafood consumption has increased in the US during Covid, but I have been tracking the sales of chilled seafood in the UK since the pandemic hit. This is mainly fresh and chilled fish from the major retailers, although the figures are likely to include some coated chilled fish and fishcakes.
The Covid effect
Until the pandemic, sales of chilled fish for home consumption had been in decline for most of the last decade. Average consumption per person had fallen by the equivalent of about ten portions of fish a year and the likelihood was that this decline would continue, as reflected by the closures of many supermarket fish counters in recent years due to a lack of consumer demand.
However, such forecasts were blown apart by the arrival of Covid-19. The change in chilled fish purchases from February to March 2020 was 0.1% but in April sales jumped by a massive 21.7%. This was when the supermarkets suffered an onslaught of consumer demand, led notably by an unprecedented need to buy toilet roll. How the increased sale of chilled fish translated into the wider stockpiling of food and housewares is unclear. Either, like ASMI’s findings, there was a surge of new consumers buying fish for the first time, possibly because they couldn’t buy other proteins because they had sold out, or more likely, existing consumers stocked up with more fish for home freezing.
Whilst forms of lockdown continued for many more months, there has never been a repeat of the April sales surge. In fact, sales have grown by around 1% month on month or less ever since. There were exceptions around Christmas and Easter but even the growth on these occasions has been relatively insignificant.
It does not appear that this small growth is the result of new consumers starting to buy fish. Instead, I suspect that these small increases in sales volume are due to promotional activity in the retail sector. After the initial uncertainty of Covid and lockdown, supermarkets returned to their normal promotional activity. For example, at the end of this June, Morrison’s had discounted whole salmon by £2/kg down to £6/kg. Tesco’s were offering salmon sides at £12.70/kg saving £2.kg. Asda had a saving of 70p on their half salmon side (500g), priced at £6.50 and Sainsbury’s had new Mowi brand salmon packs (230g) on sale at £4, a saving of 50p per pack. Offers on cod, sea bass and other species were also available.
What happens now?
The question is as we come out of Covid, what will happen to fish and seafood sales? Certainly, ASMI are optimistic that US consumers are turning from beef to fish in search of a healthier diet. I am not so sure that the same will be said across this side of the Atlantic. There has been some expectation that increased online shopping will boost fish sales and that the current trends will continue. I do hope that this will be the case, but I am not convinced.
I think we will see that as we return to eating out, interest in home cooking will diminish and the recent increased growth might stall. I don’t see anything in the retail sector that will persuade consumers to eat more fish at home.
What is more worrying is that the people who bought more fish in April 2020 were likely to be older consumers who were existing fish consumers and were familiar with eating a wider range of fish species. By comparison, younger consumers are more likely to be persuaded by the vegan and plant-based diets being promoted widely as favourable to the environment. If these younger consumers turn to plant-based diets, then who, in the future, will be eating our fish?