Alt protein long haul: Thai Union says food security more important than making a ‘quick buck’

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

Thai Union has called for more big brands dealing in protein to hop into the alternative protein sector – but stressed that the motivation for this needs to be more centered on food security than profit margins. ©Getty Images
Thai Union has called for more big brands dealing in protein to hop into the alternative protein sector – but stressed that the motivation for this needs to be more centered on food security than profit margins. ©Getty Images

Related tags: alternative protein, Thai Union, Food security

Seafood heavyweight Thai Union has called for more big brands dealing in protein to hop into the alternative protein sector – but stressed that the motivation for this needs to be more centered on food security than profit margins.

Thai Union recently launched its first plant-based product range OMG Meat​, and has also highlighted its high hopes for its alternative proteins portfolio over the next few years.

“A lot of people have been asking Thai Union why we are disrupting our own business model – but though it may seem so on the surface, we know that it is a fact that as the population grows and grows we are going to need to utilize all the protein sources available to feed the world’s population by 2050,”​ Thai Union Head of Global Busines Development of Seafood Alternatives Gerben Kamps told FoodNavigator-Asia​ at our recent Growth Asia Summit 2022 in Singapore.

“There are many players in the industry today, and we would say that especially the start-ups in the space have done a very good job of making alternative protein products to bring up the category – but really, it is about time for more bigger names, especially conventional protein partners, to get involved.

“It is especially the branded partners that must come on board - that need to come on board, and one of the main reasons is that in addition to product innovation and development, it is these big names and the marketing dollars and influence they can bring with them that are key to fully unlocking the category.”

However, Kamps also cautioned firms to keep an open mind in terms of profit margin expectations, highlighting that alternative protein is not the golden goose that many seem to expect it to be.

“The thing is that a lot of people are looking at this as a way to enhance their margins right now – maybe when the industry evolves and production costs lower to hit price parity this thinking will change, but right now it’s a common concept,”​ he said.

“It’s not really the correct concept though, and it would be best to move away from this sort of thinking when entering the sector – alternative proteins are a necessary addition to the food supply but not really the best option if you’re thinking of just making a quick buck.

“It is a sector that requires investment and persistence to succeed, and in no way a shortcut to making profits.”

That said, Thai Union still remains very optimistic about the prospects of this sector and that its current hefty investments including financial investments in plant-based, cultured, fermentation and insect-based companies as well as the establishment of an entire alternative proteins department in the firm, will eventually see good returns.

“We are definitely optimistic about the long-term opportunity here,”​ he said.

“This is due to the clear and obvious need for the protein transition – but realistically, everyone needs to be prepared that it will take longer than perhaps originally expected.”

Short-to-mid-term strategies

Whilst growing the alternative protein sector as a whole, Thai Union still needs to make up its revenue and investments into this somehow, so for now in addition to the retail OMG Meat range, it is also doing plant-based OEM products.

“In the absence of a scaled-up alternative seafood and meat market, we are filling the gap with our OEM base, making alternative protein OEM products to cater to other businesses that are also involved in this sector,” ​said Kamps.

“Our specialty is of course seafood, so we are making things like crab-cakes, tuna, fish burgers, fish nuggets, crab shumai and so on.

“Next year we will also be introducing a focus on RTE meals with an Asian focus, so things like teriyaki mushroom, Thai curry, wonton soup, Malaysian laksa, Japanese katsu and so on – the focus will be to make this appealing to consumers in order to bring more consumers into the space.”

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