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Top Species: Tilapia
‘Blank canvas fish’ continues to widen its appeal
By Joanne Friedrick
December 05, 2011
On any given day at Holiday Market in Royal Oak, Mich., the seafood department will sell about 10 pounds of tilapia. But come Tuesday, those sales triple to about 30 pounds as shoppers take part in “Tantalizing Tilapia Tuesdays” at this specialty grocer.
Started as a promotion to draw in customers on the slower shopping days, Seafood Department Manager Alex Draper says tilapia, which is consistent in both supply and price, was his best choice for a featured fish. The fish regularly sells for $7.99 a pound, but is discounted to $6.49 on Tuesdays.
“We started with Wacky Whitefish Wednesdays,” he explains, but it became too difficult to get the fish every week. Draper carries only fresh tilapia sourced from South American farms, rather than buying frozen fillets from China. The fresh is more appealing to his customers, whom he says are familiar with tilapia and buy it over other white-fleshed species such as cod and haddock.
“Most people have a sense of what to do with it,” he says, although staff can provide a recipe suggestion or two if needed.
Those who supply tilapia to retailers and foodservice accounts echo Draper’s experience with the popularity of the fish. Tilapia became the No. 4 top-selling species on the U.S. per-capita consumption list in 2010, behind shrimp, canned tuna and salmon. And it climbed to that position rather quickly, going from No. 10 in 2002 to No. 9 the following year, and then No. 6 in 2004 and 2005 until it became No. 5 from 2006 to 2009.
Tilapia is described as a blank canvas — a flaky, mild (some say bland) fish that takes breading, coatings and sauces easily to transform it into something that is appealing to consumers who eschew “fishy” seafood.
“It’s been accepted as one of the core species,” says Keith Decker, president and COO of High Liner Foods USA, Fishery Products International and Viking Seafoods in Danvers, Mass. The company buys frozen tilapia from China, Indonesia and Thailand, and also purchases some fresh product for specific customers.
China was the leading supplier of imported tilapia to the United States in 2010, providing more than 348 million pounds of primarily frozen fillets. The other leading frozen supplier to the United States was Indonesia, with about 22.5 million pounds.
On the fresh side, in 2010 the United States imported 17.3 million pounds from Ecuador, nearly 16 million pounds from Honduras and another 12.8 million pounds from Costa Rica.
Prices have risen out of China, due in large part to the increased labor rates, says Decker. That country is in the midst of raising its minimum wage over a five-year period. Feed costs, which account for about 60 percent to 70 percent of the total cost of tilapia, have also risen, he adds, as has demand for the product within China’s borders.
Add to that ongoing currency issues with the weak dollar and a disease issue that forced farmers to remove fish from the ponds before they were fully grown, and prices have risen.
Paige Tilghman, executive VP at importer Twin Tails Seafood in Miami, says such factors have caused the price of a $2 fish to increase by 20 to 25 cents.
“This time last year, everything was cost effective,” says Tilghman, with good prices for buyers and sellers. Fortunately, a lot of buyers purchased heavily last fall and had inventory. But now as demand increases for orders going into Lent, customers are faced with higher prices and smaller-than-usual fish. “Three to 5s are available,” he says, but not the larger, 7- to 9-ounce fish.
From a retail standpoint, sellers can still make a good margin on tilapia “even if the prices go up a bit,” says Tilghman.
Foodservice operators like tilapia because it meets the criteria for a non-fishy-tasting fish, he says. “We don’t do a good job of exposing young people to different fish, so tilapia works because it pairs well with breading, batter and sauces,” he says. “People want to eat more seafood, but they don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone.”
Tilghman notes that tilapia began as an underappreciated and underutilized fish, “but as time has gone on, it has developed a solid niche because of its versatility.”
Expanding how tilapia is used is part of the focus for FPI, says Decker, who sees tilapia moving beyond its original battered and breaded forms into something with more widespread culinary appeal.
FPI offers tilapia under its UpperCrust, Pan-Sear Selects and FireRoasters product lines. FireRoasters offers some bolder flavors that are on trend, says Decker, such as Citrus Peppercorn and Thai Basil. Among the products getting ready to launch are Smoky Cajun Pan Seared Tilapia and a new island-inspired version, he says.
Tilapia is a good choice for expanded offerings, he says, because the fish has been consistent in both price and availability. “Some species like mahimahi are more variable,” says Decker. Even if there are problems, such as a disease outbreak, the shorter lifecycle of tilapia allows for faster recovery, he says.
The fresh tilapia market has been growing and Regal Springs, which is one of the largest fresh tilapia suppliers to the U.S. market, has seen its business increase 25 percent in the past year, says Magdalena Lamprecht Wallhoff, marketing manager for the Miramar, Fla.-based importer.
Regal Springs farms its fresh tilapia in Honduras and Mexico and has seen some of the same issues that China’s industry has had in terms of rising feed prices and currency fluctuations. The company also has farms in Indonesia that produce frozen fillets.
Although the company no longer pays to have its tilapia certified organic, Wallhoff says the same practices that earned it an organic certification are in place. The farms are focused on having zero waste, she says, using byproducts to make bio-diesel and even selling the fish scales to pharmaceutical companies for collagen.
Another player in the fresh and frozen market, Tropical Aquaculture, has farms in South America and has noticed a desire on the part of customers for improved traceability and environmental and social stewardship certifications, says John Schramm, president of the Rutland, Vt.-based company.
“Tilapia has been a very hot item,” he says, and standards have been created for sustainability, traceability and general farming practices.
Fresh tilapia imports have seen less than a 3 percent increase from summer 2010 to summer 2011, notes Schramm. With cost increases, he says, prices have trended up by about 10 percent and he expects further minor price increases by year-end.
“Currencies have been a determining factor in the decision to export or sell locally for both Colombia and Brazil,” he says, especially with strong local demand. “Ecuador has also been successful in creating very worthwhile markets and demand, both internally and in other South American countries.”
Given the growing popularity of tilapia around the world, Wallhoff feels the timing is right to make a greater distinction among the quality of the tilapia on the market.
“I would like there to be a clear distinction between high-end tilapia and ordinary product,” she says. Recently Regal Springs had a Michelin-starred chef, Curtis Duffy from the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, cook with its product.
Upping the image of tilapia could move it from casual dining restaurants to more high-end establishments, says Wallhoff.Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine