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Business/Economy

Alaska may profit from popularity of home-meal kits

Honey Sriracha salmon lettuce wraps (Maya Wilson / Alaska from Scratch)

Alaska is aiming to get in on the growing popularity of home-meal kits that can deliver seafood directly to American kitchens.

Kits typically offer a subscription-based service through which customers order weekly meals based on how many people they plan to feed and their food preferences. The kits include portioned, high-quality ingredients with foolproof cooking instructions and can be delivered within hours or overnight. Some grocery stores also are providing in-store options that don't involve delivery.

The kits typically cost $60 to $70 a week for three, two-person meals. Since launching in 2012, it has grown into a $2.2 billion business, according to the Chicago-based consulting firm Pentallect, which predicts annual growth at 25 to 30 percent over the next five years.

The numbers could go higher with Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods and its July 6 announcement that it will enter the meal kit arena using a trademarked logo saying, “We do the prep. You be the chef.”

Ocean Beauty Seafoods, which operates six processing plants in Alaska, is already in the game, said Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing.

"We've been involved in home-meal replacements (HMRs) since they started in the 1990s, and this is a natural extension for us," he said.

Whereas HMRs offered selections of ready-to-eat items like pot pies, salads or pasta dishes, meal kits provide a different experience.

Companies such as Blue Apron, Home Fresh or Plated have gone beyond convenience and hooked into people's desire to cook with high-quality ingredients, Sunderland said.

"The convenience comes in the sourcing of the raw ingredients, but it brings the creativity and the home cooking into the mix. You are actually getting a particular experience, which is very fulfilling to a lot of people," he said.

Advances in packaging technology and logistics also play a big part in the meal kit popularity by taking the difficulty out of delivery.

"We refer to it as the last mile," Sunderland explained. "The minute you put a frozen product on a delivery truck the cold chain is no longer maintained. That's always been a deal killer for a lot of this. But with the advent of oxygen-permeable packaging films, you can allow a frozen product to thaw and still have it be food safe. That's been an enormous change in the market."

The meal kit concept also reduces waste.

"The fish or the meat is portioned just right, the vegetables are portioned to a particular dinner and recipe and the waste stream is greatly diminished," he added.

But it's the focus on high-quality ingredients that plays into Alaska's hands, Sunderland believes.

"Over the years, Alaska has been constantly improving the quality of the raw materials and the finished goods all the way through the system. That puts us in a great position to take advantage of this," he said.

Another plus: For decades, research has shown that 65 percent of Americans eat seafood only at restaurants because they claim they don't know how to cook it properly. Home meal kits will bring fish right into their kitchens.

"That's the key," Sunderland said. "When they get top-quality fish with very specific cooking directions, it maximizes the likelihood that they are going to be successful, and they will order it again. It is about as perfect as it can be."

Fishy funding

Alaska's fisheries and related programs got a mix of budget cuts and gains for 2018 before Congress left on its five-week recess.

On the hit list: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget was set at $5.6 billion — an $85 million cut — but far less than the $900 million cut proposed by President Donald Trump.

Senate appropriators also rejected Trump's call for a 32 percent cut for climate, weather and oceans research, instead providing a budget of nearly $480 million for those programs.

Also rejected were plans to gut the national Sea Grant program, which supports more than 20,000 jobs and nearly 3,000 businesses. Sea Grant was funded at $65 million, a $2 million increase.

Coastal Zone Management grants also were fully funded, and fisheries data collection, surveys and stock assessments were boosted to nearly $165 million.

Regional fisheries councils and commissions also received robust funding of $36 million.

Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Funds were maintained at $65 million, and Pacific Salmon Treaty activities received a $2 million increase to $14 million.

Weather satellite programs funded at nearly $420 million reflect a $90 million increase, $239 million above the Trump administration's request.

The Senate appropriations bill also provides $75 million to begin building a new NOAA survey vessel, $11 million for addressing ocean acidification, and an extra $3 million to expedite electronic monitoring programs.

Southeast king closure

Fishing for king salmon was shut down Thursday in Southeast Alaska for all commercial and sport users. The unprecedented move stems from record low returns, resulting in the worst commercial harvest since 1975.

"We felt compelled to do as much as we could to look toward the future," said Charlie Swanton, Alaska Department of Fish and Game deputy commissioner. The king salmon closure will be reviewed in September.

Genetically modified salmon on sale

The first batch of genetically modified salmon is now being sold in undisclosed Canadian supermarkets.

Massachusetts-based AquaBounty reported that 5 tons was shipped from its farm site in Panama, generating $53,000 or roughly $4.82 per pound. Only the company knows where the GM fish are being sold, and no labels are required to alert customers.

AquaBounty plans to produce 1,300 tons of GM salmon annually, starting next year. The man-made fish reaches adult size in 16-18 months, a year earlier than normal Atlantic salmon.

The U.S. gave a nod to the salmon in 2015, making it the first GM animal approved for human consumption, but it has yet to reach market. Lawmakers are demanding that "Frankenfish" be labeled if and when it is sold in the U.S. More than 80 U.S. grocery chains and restaurants, including Costco, have stated they will not sell the GM salmon.

Winning guess

Elizabeth Lind is the winner of the Predict the Bay contest sponsored by United Fishermen of Alaska’s Salmon Habitat Information Project. Her correct guess was a catch of 37.7 million sockeye salmon at Bristol Bay; the total on Friday was posted at 37.6 million. Lind wins an Alaska Airlines gift card for her winning guess.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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