Here Ciurtin speaks to vegconomist about long ingredient lists, emotional business decisions and reservations about Eastern Europe.
With Unfished PlanTuna, you are just launching a range of tuna alternatives in German supermarkets. What is the demand like?
Germany is one of the countries that interests us the most because here the demand for seafood alternatives is already high. The consumers’ interest towards plant-based fish is growing worldwide – and especially in Germany where many people have a strong environmental awareness. They are more willing to accept innovations and change their lifestyle. Our German distributor – Verdino GmbH – has already managed to have Unfished listed in retail such as Rewe, Edeka, Globus and Hit.
“When most producers were launching vegan fish fingers, we decided to develop a different yet unique portfolio”
The market for plant-based product alternatives is highly competitive in Germany, the price pressure is enormous. How did you manage to get listed?
We presented our first Unfished PlanTuna samples last year in spring when there was hardly any competition. Meanwhile, several plant-based “fish” producers have entered this market, mainly start-ups. Unfished’s main strengths are the variety of the portfolio and the taste and quality of the products. When most producers were launching vegan fish fingers, we decided to develop a different yet unique portfolio, matching the tuna can market – only vegan. This innovation and the gab of the market for this type of seafood alternatives have facilitated the listing process.
Many consumers are concerned about long ingredient lists and “artificial” ingredients in plant-based alternative products. How healthy is Unfished’s PlanTuna?
Replacing fish products with plant-based is not an easy task, quite the opposite. It takes time to research and find the proper, quality ingredients. We consider the importance of the ingredients not only in terms of texture, appearance, mouthfeel but also regarding health. Most of our products do not contain E numbers. The tuna-like texture of our products we achieve through non-GMO textured soy protein.
To help consumers choose the healthiest products, they can find the Nutriscore on each Unfished label. Our products all have an A or B Nutriscore.
The products are manufactured by Prefera Foods, of which you are the CEO. What kind of company is it?
Prefera Foods is one of the largest players in the canned food market in Romania, established in 2009, with a modern factory built in Transylvania. In our early beginnings, the portfolio was focused on the Romanian market needs, where we quickly became a market leader in the traditional category of vegetable spreads.
The fact that environmental issues are increasingly coming into focus when it comes to nutrition probably plays into your hands when it comes to plant-based foods?
Yes. Prefera Foods is on a transformational journey, driven by new food trends and a conscientious approach to food manufacturing. An increasing part of our portfolio is dedicated now to plant-based foods which put less stress on the planet.
I am proud of the people who work dedicatedly in our organization, for years, assuming and believing in our values, to whom innovation and taste improvement are the basis of their daily activity.
And what does the Unfished brand stand for?
The Unfished brand is as honest as the name itself: “not fished”. Two years ago, we started this journey with a strong new mission when developing the Unfished portfolio for plant-based seafood. Back then, the plant-based fish category was in its early footsteps, compared to plant-based meat. From a business perspective, it was a brave decision to launch a plant-based fish brand. For me personally, it was above all an emotional one.
“Unfished is my belief and desire for a change for the future”
What do you mean by that?
As a human being, not only as a consumer or as an entrepreneur, I am more aware and deeply concerned about climate changes and ocean matters. Constant ocean pollution, intensive fishing threaten and destroy little by little our fragile ocean ecosystem. Unfished is my belief and desire for a change for the future.
Many customers in Germany do not necessarily associate innovative strength and high-quality food with Eastern Europe. Time to rethink?
Eastern Europe has an image problem, yes, unfortunately. But we should not be guided by prejudices when making consumer decisions, but by the quality, taste or overall brand performance.
To respond to food safety and quality issues and to assure the best food for consumers, Prefera Foods has a microbiology lab with state-of-the-art equipment for quality control and analysis. Since 2018 Prefera Foods is granted the prestigious International Food Standard (IFS) certification, a global safety and quality standard recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
How many products do you currently offer under the Unfished brand?
The Unfished portfolio offers 11 products – from canned PlanTuna, our trademark for plant-based tuna, to ready-to-eat salads with vegetables and spreads.
And what products do you have in the pipeline?
There is a category which is not well developed so far, white “fish fillet” made of plants. We’ve come a long way there and are working on the final recipes. New products are already under development for retail but especially for gastronomy, a range of products for sushi restaurants and ready meals with plant-based fish.
In which other countries is the brand present?
We bet on innovation and on the mix of products portfolio to break the borders of Romania even further. Unfished is rapidly growing in Spain and Portugal and is on the way to Sweden, UK and USA.
What are your plans for 2022?
The strategy of Prefera Foods for this year is to complete the plant-based fish portfolio and to extend the distribution in Europe and USA. An important distribution channel with huge potential is foodservice, and we are looking steadily to make new partnerships.
We soon prepare to launch in Europe a new brand for plant-based ready meals – which we will then offer to international retail chains.