(Bloomberg) -- In the race for alternative proteins, lab-grown seafood could be next on the dinner table.

One of the world’s biggest makers of canned tuna, Thai Union Group Pcl, has set up an innovation center with more than 100 scientists and engineers working to develop various forms of faux meat and seafood. It is also partnering with several companies through a venture fund, which could lead to the production of lab-grown seafood.

The alternative seafood industry is expected to be worth $1.3 billion a year globally in 10 years time, up from $30 million to $50 million currently, according to Maarten Geraets, Managing Director of Alternative Proteins at Thai Union, which owns the Chicken of the Sea and John West brands.

Faux seafood is about eight years behind the more mature alternative meat market, Geraets said. That presents a “huge opportunity” for the company because it’s based in Asia and is already a top seafood processor. U.S. sales of plant-based seafood grew 23% to $12 million in 2020, according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit group pushing for more sustainable proteins, compared to the conventional seafood market worth tens of billions of dollars. 

“The idea is to invest in deep tech -- technology for the future,” Geraets said. “Cell-based could be a very plausible next step for us.” Many of the startups that Thai Union is supporting, helped by the venture fund, are keen on Asia, especially Singapore, which is pioneering lab-grown burger meat, and the company is looking to leverage its existing strength in the region. 

Thai Union started a plant-based seafood and meat line in March, joining the likes of Tyson Foods Inc. and Nestle SA in the faux seafood space. Its OMG Meat offering features items like fish nuggets, seafood burger patties, crab dumplings and dim sum. It mainly uses soy and pea protein as ingredients, and is looking to source local options such as mung beans, lentils and chickpeas. 

Delicate Flavor

Catching up with consumption levels of plant-based meat depends on driving awareness and piggybacking on developments in the meat space, he said. “The initial hurdles, the trend-setting and the awareness around plant-based have been done by meat. We’re hopeful that seafood can follow suit quite rapidly.”

Still, creating faux seafood can be tricky because different types of fish and crustaceans may have flavor and texture that vary tremendously, making it difficult to replicate with just one type of technology, Geraets said. Masking or subduing the taste of soy in plant-based protein is also challenging especially with the softer, delicate flavor of real seafood, he said. 

Another challenge is the consumer perception that seafood is already seen as a healthy protein. But while seafood has a positive, heart-healthy image, it can be expensive, and some avoid it due to allergies. In addition, there are concerns about overfishing, microplastics and heavy metals contamination, as well over the environmental sustainability of fish farming in the long term. 

“The bigger opportunity lies with flexitarians, who are flexing between meat, seafood and vegan propositions,” Geraets said, adding that U.S., Europe and Asia Pacific are key growth markets. “Plant-based solutions are a trend that people would want to buy into. It’s something you want to be seen with, eating or drinking. It can be very aspirational.”

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.