I bought a pouch of Good Catch and a can of solid white albacore for comparison. At home, I opened the pouch and dumped out a jumble of flaky chunks that had the same pallored look as tuna. The chew was quite firm, which impressed me. Springiness is one of the main attractions of meat, and it’s hard to replicate using plants.
The albacore, stripped of support, was weirder than I remembered. Did you know tuna is canned in vegetable broth to give it flavor? Drained, it has nothing going on until you add mayonnaise, celery, and salt. Why had I been killing some of the sexiest fish in the sea for this loser lunch meat?
I preferred Good Catch in every way. It didn’t taste like much either—think seaweed-scented chicken breast—but the texture was addictive, and I found myself testing the little bouncy fibers between my teeth. I didn’t think of it as tuna so much as chew-na, and I used it liberally, sprinkled over caprese salad for extra tooth, tucked under melted cheese on a piece of toast. It made tasty fish burgers and cakes. It even held up beautifully in a pasta al tonno, simmered in garlicky tomato sauce. In other words, it passed the plug-and-play test. So long, Big Tuna.
When I called Chris Kerr, Good Catch’s cofounder and executive chair, he told me I wasn’t the only one to recently discover his product. COVID-19 had triggered a run on shelf-stable everything, and he was scrambling to keep stores stocked. His new 42,500-square-foot factory in Heath, Ohio, had come online just in time.
Kerr asked me how his product measured up. I told him it was never going to take over Instagram, but it was good enough. He agreed, and added that this was all it needed to be. “For the love of God,” he said, “it’s just a fucking tuna melt!”
Kerr, 53, is irreverent and savvy, and he’s got the vision thing. A longtime vegan, he worked at the Humane Society for seven years but eventually found the group’s traditional tactics frustrating. “We weren’t getting very far in terms of moving the needle on animal welfare,” he says. “Vegans are still 0.5 percent of the population.” He left in 2014 and was recruited to launch New Crop Capital, a venture firm that invests in vegan food startups. New Crop was an early backer of Beyond Meat and now has a stake in more than 40 companies.
Kerr was one of the first to see the need for a Beyond Meat of seafood. Like the founders of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, he came to the problem from the perspective of animal welfare. We’re so used to the traditions of fishing that we rarely notice that they involve the mass killing of wild animals, usually in painful ways that would never be acceptable with birds or mammals. (Try hooking a deer in the mouth and dragging it kicking and screaming for miles.)
But until the revelations of human-rights abuses in the fishing industry, the biggest knock against fishing was environmental. According to Daniel Pauly, a prominent British Columbia–based marine scientist, almost no fisheries are truly sustainable. “It’s so bad,” he says. “Sustainable is not a reliable term anymore. So many fisheries have been reduced to a small fraction of what they once were. You can ‘sustainably’ fish them at that diminished level, but they really need to be rebuilt to support the ecosystem.” According to a number of papers published by leading scientists, the agencies that certify fisheries are deeply flawed, and many fish that have the “sustainable” label applied to them are anything but.
Then there’s bycatch—other animals unintentionally caught and killed in nets. About 40 percent of the fishing industry’s combined haul is bycatch, a total of 63 billion pounds per year. That carnage includes an estimated 650,000 marine mammals, a million seabirds, 8.5 million sea turtles, and ten million sharks. In the Indian Ocean, more than 80 percent of the original dolphin population—four million animals—has been killed in tuna nets.
Good Catch, a brand of faux tuna, made tasty fish burgers and cakes. It even held up beautifully in a pasta al tonno, simmered in garlicky tomato sauce. In other words, it passed the plug-and-play test. So long, Big Tuna.
Aquaculture has not been the salvation many had hoped. Farming fish turns out to have the same problems as farming livestock in industrial settings: animal-welfare issues, disease and parasites, antibiotic overuse, and massive pollution.
For all those reasons, Kerr says, he felt a need to help jump-start the plant-based-seafood industry. “But I couldn’t find anything solid to invest in. So I just said, Fuck it, I’ll start my own.”
Now more mainstream investors—having watched Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods take the world by storm—are scrambling to catch up. In January of this year, General Mills joined a group of companies that invested $32 million in Good Catch. Soon the celebrities rushed in: Lance Bass, Paris Hilton, Woody Harrelson, and Shailene Woodley all invested in the company.
But the biggest development came in March, when Bumble Bee Foods, the international tuna giant, announced a new partnership to distribute Good Catch’s fishless tuna in many places where Bumble Bee sells its own. “They approached us!” Kerr told me. “We were prepared to be attacked by that same company.”
“That shocked the industry,” says Monica Talbert, CEO of Van Cleve Seafood, a Virginia company that has launched a subsidiary, Plant Based Seafood, that sells a line of fish-free products. “The seafood industry sees plant-based as treasonous. They’re trying to squelch it. So for a giant, global company like Bumble Bee to take it on was huge.” Talbert thinks the writing is on the wall. “Consumers are demanding it. It would behoove the industry to jump on board.”
In Bumble Bee’s press release announcing the partnership, CEO Jan Tharp explained the thinking. “It is critically important that, as an industry, we continue to find innovative solutions to decouple growth with environmental impact,” she explained. “Providing great-tasting alternative ways for consumers to enjoy ocean-inspired foods is a key pillar of our long-term commitment to ocean health.”
Translation: Canned tuna is a sinking stone, and we can’t get on the plant-based bandwagon fast enough.