Can vegan tuna ever grow as big (and tasty) as the Impossible Burger?
Good Catch, which produces environmentally friendly “seafood” made with plant-based ingredients, is betting big on consumers’ expanding palettes. On Tuesday, the startup announced an $8.7 million Series A round of funding led by New Crop Capital, along with retailers such as Thrive Market and Fresh Direct.
It’s the latest strategic grab at the booming plant-based “meat” industry, which saw sales top $670 million in the last year—up 24% from the year prior. The overall plant-based industry saw $3.3 billion in sales, reports the Plant Based Foods Association.
While fake crab or fish-less filets already exist, there is no one company solely dedicated to re-creating numerous ocean favorites at a large scale. Most faux-protein startups focus on chicken and beef, says Good Catch cofounder Chris Kerr, with few products mimicking the taste, texture, and cooking process of real seafood. Meanwhile, the possibilities range from everyday sandwich staples (canned tuna) to upscale, exotic appetizers (oysters). Seafood encapsulates over 200 creatures, versus roughly 30 land animals.
“When you look at the [human] palate that we get to work with, the ocean gives a lot more flexibility to be innovative,” says Kerr. “That’s the one side nobody was looking at it, yet nearly 40% of protein consumed by humans comes from seafood. We thought, ‘What an untapped market.'”
There’s also the environmental factor: Oceans serve as the planet’s largest source of protein, with 3 billion people depending on it for sustenance. But 85% of marine fish has been either fully exploited or overfished, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. The Earth simply cannot keep up with demand over the coming decades. Food scarcity could be a reality as soon as 2023, experts warn.
“We’re not in a strong position to just be waiting this out for another 50 years,” says Kerr. “The time matters now.”
Factory-farmed fish isn’t quite a sustainable solution since most captive fish is raised off fish protein (i.e., we need feed fish to fish). And it can take as much as 2.4 pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Costly and time-consuming farmed fish takes upwards of two and a half to three years to harvest in a tank.
“[Fish] also has the same cognition as a chicken,” adds Kerr, a former board member of the Humane Society. “If you’re looking at it from from a pure scaling standpoint, it’s flawed on a bunch of fronts . . . If we can create that with plants, it’s a lot more streamlined.”
Starting from scratch
A longtime environmental activist, Kerr says he originally wanted to invest in an existing vegan seafood company, but couldn’t find sufficient culinary-focused products to rally around. He and his investors decided, “We’ll start from scratch.” (Competitors in the same sphere include Wild Type, which is attempting lab-grown salmon, and New Wave Foods, a shrimp alternative made from algae.)
In 2016, Kerr partnered with chefs Chad Sarno and Derek Sarno (coauthors of the Wicked Healthy cookbook) and Eric Schnell and Marci Zaroff of the “conscious products” branding agency Beyond Brands to launch Good Catch. The products are composed of lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans and are free of gluten, dairy, GMOs, and of course, the ocean’s more harmful ingredients, namely, mercury, plastic and microfibers. Kerr is aware that consumers might more readily respond to the product’s health benefits than they do environmental ones.
“Innovation in commerce actually effects change a lot more quickly than changing hearts and minds,” concedes Kerr. “[We pursued] the idea that we could create really good products and put them in front of consumers–not have to create moral arguments as to why you should eat them—just give them good food. That was pretty critical to the design of this company.”
Fresh, not fishy
Good Catch doesn’t just want to be a niche brand found at Whole Foods. To create critical global environmental impact, the brand realizes it must master taste, production scalability, retail accessibility, and even cooking and cultural preferences.
The U.S. might want tuna and salmon, while India relies on catfish. Germany skews toward fresh food, while Americans have no issue with refrigeration. Some nations use fish as an ingredient in elaborate recipes, while others season it for an entire dish. That means Good Catch will offer canned tuna and crab cakes along with a “fresh”-like fish that can be cooked, just like the real thing.
So when it came to funding, Good Catch secured strategic investors that could expand the company’s ambitious global reach. PHW, for example, is the largest poultry producer in Germany, and the fourth largest in Europe. An undisclosed Brazilian partner will help establish a South American strategy.
Appealing to a swath of international tastes is an ambitious feat, especially for a company dealing with a rather tricky ingredient. “Fishy” is not a generally positive description: Many associate fish with its more negative drawbacks: rotting smell, heavy metals, or mercury. Good Catch can avoid all of those—the issue is overcoming long-held associations that aren’t as prevalent with land animal protein.
Good Catch plans to publicize the advantages of plant-based alternatives. Its products are shelf-stable, a feature not too common in the market save for beef jerky. Ultimately, says Kerr, such versatility will propel it to places beyond the local health store. He wants to be in busy travelers’ carry-ons, the school cafeteria, Subway, even in Lean Cuisine.
In the coming years, following more research and better production capabilities, Good Catch intends to be as affordable—if not more—than current real protein competitors. “In the case of our seafood, it better taste like tuna fish, it better be priced like tuna fish, it better be as available as tuna fish, and I better know where to get it,” stresses Kerr.
Good Catch will launch three shelf-stable albacore tuna-like products in November: Naked, Mediterranean, and Olive Oil & Herbs. In early, 2019, the company plans to release roughly three to five frozen offerings.
So far, the vegan seafood market seems ripe for the taking. If most Americans are willing to try lab-grown meat, there’s a good chance they’ll give a faux-tuna melt a chance. Although, Good Catch plans to go far beyond just tuna.
“I don’t know when we’ll get into something like octopus, but our plan is to slowly but surely address as much of it as we can,” says Kerr. “We are in this for the long haul.”