BOSTON -- Last year, e-commerce was little more than a gleam in the eyes of the seafood industry, but this year nearly a dozen Web sites devoted to the selling of seafood over the Internet were represented in some fashion at the annual International Boston Seafood Show.
Although e-commerce was a hot topic all around the exhibiton floor, most retailers participating in panel discussions, including one devoted strictly to e-commerce, said they aren't sourcing seafood on the Web -- at least yet.
"This business is one of relationships," said Rich Catanzaro, seafood specialist with H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, Texas. "I don't know yet how you have a relationship with a Web site."
Retailers may soon have to reasssess that opinion, as consumer-direct "e-tailers" sell seafood-based meals through the home computer. Customers can order meals, flowers, wine and other items from home, enter credit card information and have the order delivered to their door.
In identifying future trends, the panelists predicted the biggest increases in seafood sales will come through innovative value-added products, especially from national seafood brands; tastier and more convenient seafood entrees; and farmed products. Two other trends are nearly in opposition -- fish that are genetically engineered for faster growth and all-natural products that allow for no genetic alteration or artificial additives.
"The key to selling seafood is to give customers what they want," said Mark Lamothe, vice president of marketing for Gorton's Seafood, Gloucester, Mass. He said consumers trust that national brands will make products that are safe and well-prepared, partly because they spend so much money on advertising.
Gorton's saw sales rise when they introduced flavored fillets, grilled and baked fillets, as well as snack-style "tenders" in response to customer demand.
American consumers eat an average of only 14.9 pounds of seafood per year, compared to 64.9 pounds of beef, 65 pounds of poultry and 49.2 pounds of pork. They also spend less time cooking -- an average of 10% less in 1999, than in 1992, said Lamothe.
To win a larger share of the highly-competitive protein market, panelists agreed producers must make seafood more user-friendly, highly flavorful and easy to prepare.
Retailers profit from advertising and promotion done by major brands to promote their own product, said Lamothe, pointing out that spending has increased from $17.8 million in 1995 to $41.6 million in 1999.
David Theran, chief marketing officer for Fultonstreet.com, Long Island City, N.Y., one of the e-commerce companies exhibiting at IBSS, said his company offers "a one-stop gourmet shopping experience" that ranges from seafood, steaks and groceries, to commercial kitchenware.
The Web site purveyor also offers "value-added content," Theran said, including on-line celebrity chef chat, recipes and wine suggestions.
The Fultonstreet.com idea originated with the Morfogen family: Stratis, a third-generation Fulton Fish Market seafood broker; John, with 40 years in purchasing and distribution at Fulton, and Nick, a chef named one of the best new chefs in 1996 by Food and Wine Magazine.
Like all other e-commerce operations, the on-line company promises consumers fraud protection, security, and privacy for all their personal information. Fultonstreet.com expects to combine with a delivery service soon, a move that gives them access to warehouses and 450 trucks in 30 cities nationwide.
"Markets for seafood in the Midwest will skyrocket" as consumer seafood-buying from Web sites catches on, predicted Theran.
In a segment devoted specifically to species, the panelists weighed in on a new salmon that promises lower costs to the marketplace with greater profits for growers.
Eliot Entis, president of Aqua Bounty Farms, Waltham, Mass., showed pictures of a genetically modified, farmed salmon harvested 14 months after spawning that measured 15.8 inches, compared to other farmed salmon that reached only 4.8 inches in the same time.
Entis said the fish is produced by injecting a freeze-resistant gene from other cold-water fish into the salmon. The gene causes the fish to use its own growth hormone more efficiently to grow at a rapid pace, while eating less food.
"It can take three years to raise a fish this large" without using the gene, said Entis.
He insists the fish is an "all-natural, generically modified fish" because tests show no difference in the DNA between his fish and other farmed salmon.
"We did a little bit of gene-juggling. The fish eats less to reach the same weight which provides benefits to consumers, producers and retailers," Entis said.
The salmon, dubbed "Frankenfish" by some critics of the process, is sterile so any fish escaping pens would not alter wild stocks, he noted. However, growers could not raise their own broodstock.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization says the world will need seven times the amount of farmed fish to maintain the same per-capita seafood consumption, said Entis. "We need to produce more fish faster at a lower cost."
Although he admitted genetic modification is a controversial topic, he predicted Americans will not be opposed to buying and eating the fish, and doesn't see it becoming a big issue.
"Americans don't share the fears of Europeans about genetically engineered foods," said Entis. "They are not as traditional and they trust the Food and Drug Administration."
Phillip Nabors, president and co-founder of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, Solon, Ohio, operator of two natural foods supermarkets with full-service restaurants, disagreed. He predicted retail opposition won't come just from the organic stores.
"I've just come back from an organic conference in the [United Kingdom]," Nabors reported. "Sainsbury's people were there and they said they're working with their producers to make sure they can get more natural and organic products. They urged others to do the same. Sainsbury's owns Shaw's [East Bridgewater, Mass]. It's going to be an issue here."
Nabors is a veteran activist for food safety and consumer rights legislation who worked hard to get federal guidelines established for organic standards, which were announced in Washington during the show.
"I want you to know consumers do care about genetically engineered foods," said Nabors. "Natural food products are the fastest-growing segment in retail. People will spend more money on products they consider pure. The 'owner's manual for earth,' the book of Genesis, tells us to take care of the planet. You can't put the genetic genie back in the bottle once it's been released."
Mustard Seed has developed its own independent requirements for natural and organic products sold in its stores and restaurants. Nabors said he will not buy any seafood with added sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), products marinated with artificial colors or preservatives, or any fish that's been genetically engineered.