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UK Cost-of-Living Crisis Continues to Drive Growth in Frozen Seafood Sales

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Fish and seafood is popular in the United Kingdom, with consumers buying 391,572 tons of marine products worth £4.1 billion from supermarkets and other large multiple retailers in 2022, according to Seafish, non-departmental public body in the UK sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Frozen fish is the second most popular segment, after chilled, with 25% of value and 33% of volume, with the top five species by volume weighing in as follows by tonnage: Tuna, 69,500; Salmon, 66,600; Cod 51,500; Pollock, 31,700; Warm water Prawns, 25,600.

According to Seafish’s Seafood Consumption Update 2024, rising interest rates, concern over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the escalating Middle East Crisis, 2023 was a tough year for the seafood market. However, the category began to show an uptick in the latter half of the year, returning to growth in early 2024, driven by increased sales of frozen fish fingers.

The updated report states: “In 2020 Covid-19 panic buying and home working, school closures and restrictions on foodservice resulted in significantly more in-home meal occasions briefly boosting retail seafood sales by around 10%. Post Covid-19, any short periods of volume growth have typically come from frozen and ambient seafood. Frozen natural, prepared, and frozen coated seafood such as breaded, battered, cakes and fingers grew strongly. As a result, species, used in coated products such as Alaskan pollack, saw strong volume growth.”

Cost Effective

When it comes to overall frozen food sales, fish accounts for 10.6%, increasing to 14.1% when specifically looking at savory products (Circana: 52-week period through the week ending March 23, 2024.
“Shoppers are typically buying fewer groceries as household budgets remain under pressure,” said Rupert Ashby, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF), “but frozen fish continues to be a popular choice and is one of the few categories not to see a decrease in volume sales.”

Despite reports of the rate of inflation slowing in the UK, the fact that wages have not increased and the higher cost of living means that consumers are making more mindful decisions about what to buy and where to shop. As the entire food industry struggles with similar operational and ingredients price increases, frozen seafood is emerging as an increasingly cost-effective option, according to the BFFF.

“Switching from fresh to frozen seafood staples such as breaded cod can bring huge savings,” pointed out Ashby. “For example, research conducted by Which? shows a savings of approximately 58% when buying frozen fish instead of the chilled equivalent. As fresh fish is often a higher-priced, premium product, consumers are switching to frozen to save precious pounds while enjoying the same meal.”

Sustainable Focus

Shoppers are increasingly looking for sustainable frozen fish and seafood is an option as there is very little wastage and the products retain nutrients thanks to the freezing process. Marine Stewardship Council labeled fish and seafood sales have posted considerable shifts by sector and product format, and frozen and preserved products saw growth. Progress in MSC labeled product sales, that made 2022/23 a record year for the UK and Ireland, was largely driven by consumers purchasing more frozen and preserved products.

According to MSC Market Report 2023, frozen cod products, such as fish fingers, fish cakes and fillets, along with canned skipjack tuna, have been the main catalyst for record MSC labeled product sales.
The biggest growth in MSC sales was in frozen-prepared products, with consumer spending in this category rising from just below £343 million in 2021/22 to £385 million in 2022/23.

Overall, sales of MSC frozen products increased by 8%, whereas sales of chilled products declined by 4%. This trend towards affordability and longer shelf-ife is also observable in surimi (commonly marketed as seafood sticks), often a less expensive source of protein, growing by 22%.
Birds Eye has consistently sold more MSC labeled frozen fish and seafood than any other brand in the UK, including retailer private labels, according to MSC. The Nomad Foods brand offered 100% MSC and ASC certified fish and seafood in 2023.

“Nurturing brand trust is key to our long-term success and embedded within this is our focus on quality, nutrition, and sustainability, which are all intrinsic to our brand values,” said Mike Sowerby, head of fish and chicken marketing at Birds Eye UK & Ireland. “Our partnership with the MSC has been a key pillar of our sustainability strategy since Birds Eye co-founded the organization, as part of Unilever, alongside the WWF 25 years ago.”

Lidl and Waitrose shoppers saw the biggest increase in MSC certified hake options, with the retailers increasing their ranges from one to eight and four to seven products, respectively, between 2021/22 and 2022/23. The Tesco chain had the next largest range, with four labeled products sold across chilled, frozen and fish counter formats, while Aldi introduced two new products last year.

New England Seafood included two Cape Hake products as it expanded the range of its Fish Said Fred brand, which is now 100% MSC and ASC certified. Ocean Fish also provided shoppers with a local option when its Hook, Line and Sinker Cornish Hake and Garlic Butter launched on Ocado last year, which won the MSC UK Product of the Year 2023 award.

Market Trends

Recently, there has been significant innovation with fish. Although battered fish products continue to be freezer staples, there are a whole host of frozen fish and seafood SKUs that meet growing demand and changing consumer habits. For example, Iceland’s new Salt and Pepper Salmon Nuggets and Blue Dragon’s Sweet Chilli Prawns and Noodles for those short on time and for consumers cooking from scratch, packets of frozen seafood mixes can help to make a more cost-effective seafood linguine or fish pie.

“In March 2024, we continued to deliver on the consumer demand for taste by launching our latest innovation – Mini Fish Fingers,” said Sowerby. “Fish fingers are leading the growth of the Total Frozen Fish category, with strong value growth of +6.8% versus a year ago. Our classic Fish Fingers have been a staple at the dinner table for generations, and are particularly popular at kids’ meal times. With the growing use of frozen foods during lunch and snacking occasions, our new Mini Fish Fingers were launched to tap into this demand to provide a tasty, nutritious, and fun mealtime solution for kids while also offering an innovative option for adult sharing plates and party occasions.”

Seafish’s Seafood Consumption Update 2024 predicts that the seafood market’s growth will be driven by price until the economic uncertainty eases. Furthermore, with 75% of shoppers reporting plans to eat out less in restaurants, pre-prepared seafood product sales are likely to benefit.

– Reported by Sarah Welsh