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Species Focus: Tilapia

This popular farmed whitefish has become a staple at foodservice and retail outlets nationwide

Rick Ramseyer
October 01, 2005

Tilapia has been touted for years as an ideal seafood choice for finicky American consumers. The sweet-tasting fish, long cultivated in warm waters worldwide, produces flaky, boneless fillets and offers a wealth of cooking options. Now, with U.S. tilapia consumption on pace to top 500 million pounds in 2005, demand finally appears to be catching up to potential.

“Tilapia is perfectly placed to take advantage of the big run-up in domestic seafood consumption,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has focused much of his academic career on aquaculture — especially farm-raised tilapia — since the early 1980s.

Fitzsimmons cites tilapia’s versatility, its year-round availability and its relatively low, stable price among the factors for the surge.

“Probably most important, it has a mild [taste], which is what most Americans want,” he says.

“And chefs like it because they can show off their skills with different sauces and preparations.”

Tilapia, in fact, is now on the menus of independent restaurants across the country, as well as at virtually every major casual-dining chain, including Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Even family-dining icon Denny’s has joined the party with a new grilled-tilapia entrée.

Moreover, tilapia has become a staple at big-name supermarkets, club stores and specialty markets coast to coast. It’s also the centerpiece of some value-added products in both retail and foodservice settings.

All told, tilapia (Tilapia spp.), whose origin has been traced to Africa’s Nile River, ranks as the sixth-most-popular seafood in America — behind catfish and in front of cod — with per-capita consumption at 0.7 pound. Last year, in live weight, U.S. tilapia consumption stood at 412 million pounds and is projected to reach 504 million pounds in 2005, according to data compiled by Fitzsimmons.

The lion’s share of tilapia is from overseas (see chart), with the vast majority of frozen fillets stemming from China, Indonesia and Taiwan. The bulk of fresh fillets is farmed in Central and South America. U.S. tilapia production, meanwhile, accounts for roughly 20 million pounds annually, per Fitzsimmons.

“Essentially, tilapia has come out of nowhere the last few years,” says Bill Dresser, president of Sea Port Products Corp., a seafood importer that sources tilapia from Taiwan. “It’s one of our fastest-growing items and now represents close to 15 percent of the total pounds we do and probably a little over 5 percent in revenue.

“Unless something [unexpected happens], there’s absolutely no stopping it over the next three to five years,” says Dresser, speaking from his office in Kirkland, Wash. “It should more than double what it is now.”

Icelandic USA in Newport News, Va., also handles frozen tilapia — most destined for foodservice applications — and recently added four new flavors to a “chef-ready” tilapia line it launched in 2001. The 4- and 6-ounce portions come in varieties such as scampi, teriyaki ginger, mild Cajun and wine and mushroom.

“We don’t have a lot of tilapia products, but the ones we have sell well,” says Jim Papadakis, Icelandic USA’s director of marketing services. “The increase from this year to last year was tremendous.”

Mountain Stream Tilapia, which imports primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Belize, also has seen a sales spike.

“We’re growing as fast as our farms can produce,” says Bob Tate, regional sales manager for the Miami company, which provides fresh fillets to foodservice distributors and to supermarket chains like Price Chopper, ShopRite, Stew Leonard’s and Cub Foods.

Mountain Stream fillets typically are sold on ice in full-service and self-service cases, where point-of-sale materials include branded ice picks, ad slicks and recipe cards.

“Retailers prefer 5- to 7-ounce fillets, but with the rising demand, a lot of [producers] are going to market at 3 to 5,” says Tate. He notes that in late August prices were $3.25 to $3.55 per pound, f.o.b. Miami.

Another segment stakeholder has had a more up-and-down 2005. Rain Forest Aquaculture in Sunrise, Fla. — an importer of fresh and frozen tilapia fillets for customers that include Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, Publix Super Markets and Costco — began the year with robust harvest figures from its farm in Costa Rica. (The company also sources from Ecuador and other places.)

“But we had to reduce our outflow midsummer because we lost a significant number of fish this spring,” says Bill Marshall, Rain Forest president, declining to be more specific.

“So, basically, we’re down 10 percent this year relative to last year,” Marshall adds. “But in the coming year we’re targeting to be up 33 percent.”

On the menu
Among the best indicators of tilapia’s march into the mainstream is its mushrooming popularity on restaurant menus nationwide. Italian-themed Olive Garden, part of the Darden fold in Orlando, Fla., became one of the latest casual-dining chains to feature the fish with the June introduction of Parmesan Crusted Tilapia ($13.95).

“It’s a great fish that complemented our Parmesan crusting,” says Steve Coe, spokesperson for Olive Garden, which has 563 locations in the United States and Canada. “And it gave us an opportunity to expand our seafood [selections].”

Independent eateries are pushing tilapia, too. In downtown Sarasota, Fla., Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Restaurant and Market — one of four Barnacle Bill’s locations in the area — highlights several tilapia preparations, including the house-specialty Tilapia Gaspar ($16.95), which sports sautéed tilapia over angel-hair pasta.

“People who don’t like fish usually love tilapia,” says Liz Avis, manager of the Main Street site. “It’s very mild and sweet.”

The species is also big at Buzzard Billy’s, which serves it blackened, fried or grilled for around $10.95 at its restaurants in Waco, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; LaCrosse, Wis; and Lincoln, Neb.

“Texas is the catfish capital of the world, but tilapia is quite popular,” says Waco store owner Tracy Maughan, who estimates he uses 50 pounds per week. “It’s got a good flavor, it’s white and flaky, and it really blackens well.”

And tilapia’s not just for entrées. Harveen Khera, chef/owner of the Indian-themed Tallula restaurant in San Francisco, offers Tilapia and Coconut Ceviche ($11) as an appetizer in a papadum shell.

“The crispness of the shell and the butteriness of the tilapia are a marriage made in heaven,” Khera says.

Oven-ready convenience
Tilapia also is emerging as a value-added retail product that’s ready for consumers to pop in the oven or

Icelandic USA recently unveiled its Market Bay line of tilapia meals, available frozen or refrigerated in four varieties: shrimp marinara; shrimp Alfredo; Mediterranean salsa; and Portobello mushroom and julienned peppers. The packages, each containing two 6-ounce fillets from Ecuador, go for $5.99.

“It’s been extremely well received,” says Steve Bruni, Icelandic USA’s director of retail and club stores, citing Cub Foods in the Midwest as an example. “We’re getting authorizations coast to coast.”

Enaca International in Medley, Fla. — the sales arm of Enaca Seafood in Ecuador — also has developed a value-added line of marinated tilapia. Sold under the Rio Mar brand, it’s priced at $4.99 for a single-serving 4-ounce package.

But that’s only a fraction of Enaca’s business. The company, an importer of tilapia from Ecuador and Brazil, provides fresh fillets to foodservice distributors, as well as retailers such as Costco, where prices last month were $3.99 a pound.

For now, Enaca splits its revenue evenly between tilapia and its other core product, shrimp. But that may change.

“We’re growing more on the tilapia side,” says Jim Nunneley, Enaca International’s managing director, noting increases in recent years of up to 35 percent.

Prices rising
Given the burgeoning demand for tilapia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that producers have an incentive to harvest the fish sooner rather than later.

Charles Yi, sales director of O Fine Foods in Arcadia, Calif., which handles frozen tilapia from China, says many Chinese farmers are focusing on smaller sizes, especially 3- to 5-ounce fillets.

“Tilapia [has become] more of a price-driven item right now,” says Yi.

“Demand is so big for the 3 to 5 and the 1 to 3 that farmers don’t have to wait — they can sell the smaller sizes,” says Papadakis of Icelandic USA.

“For the larger sizes, above 5 ounces, the prices are starting to go up because the supply is short.”

Further, industry representatives say that skyrocketing costs for fuel, transportation and feed, coupled with the Chinese yuan’s strength vs. the U.S. dollar, may push tilapia prices up in the months ahead.

“We have held prices steady for the last three or four years compared with the rest of the industry,” says Enaca’s Nunneley.

“But, obviously, with the higher freight rates [and these other factors], you’ll probably see a 10 percent or 15 percent increase.”

Despite those types of challenges, most tilapia stakeholders remain bullish about the market.

“Tilapia certainly gets more well-known every year,” says Nunneley. “But I don’t think we’ve reached the top of a bell curve yet.”

Tate of Mountain Stream puts it even more succinctly: “The demand is still there,” he says, “and so is the growth.”

 October 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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