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Global Retail: Breeding success

Europeans look for familiarity in farmed fish

By Jason Holland
August 01, 2012

On the surface, the European consumer’s relationship with aquaculture appears more of a marriage of convenience than a great love affair; farmed fish generally bridges the gap that exists between indigenous wild species and less-expensive center-of-plate proteins like chicken and pork. 

But while it’s true that fish farming provides Europeans with affordable means to access seafood, deep-rooted cultural familiarity is also driving sales.

The Iglo Foods Group, Europe’s leading branded frozen food business, has found that pangasius and tilapia are growing evermore successful due to their appealing fillet size and flexibility in recipe development. However, the group’s extensive market insight has also established that the geographical location of European consumers and their farmed species flavor preferences are inter-related.

“Inland or landlocked countries and their consumers are more willing to accept fish flavor profiles that are more ‘freshwater-biased than sea-fresh or neutral,’” says Peter Hajipieris, Iglo’s chief technical, sustainability and external affairs officer. “This is a key point in deciding which species to supply in a market. So pangasius and tilapia are proving to be more acceptable in such [inland] places rather than those markets whose consumers are used to supplies of wild-caught, sea-fresh flavors.”

Furthermore, he says that if a species has a “weedy overtone” it’s a challenge for consumers to choose such fish over wild or farmed species originating from free-flowing, free-standing sea cages.

He adds that farmed sea bream and sea bass are popular due to their attractive price versus their wild counterparts. This has come as a result of farmers’ increasing efficiency and ability to control harvest sizes. 

“Sea-fresh and a clearer flavor profile also help these two species in particular penetrate more country markets,” he says.

Adding weight to Iglo’s theory of the buying habits of coastal and non-coastal states, Melissa Spiro, fish buyer for high-end U.K. retailer Waitrose, says shrimp and salmon lead the way in terms of its farmed product sales because they are the most familiar to shoppers.

“If you look at other farmed species, sea bass is growing in popularity. Again, customers see this fish on more and more menus and being used by TV chefs. We also sell tilapia, which is growing in popularity, but it’s taking a while to establish sales.

“The work we have done in the past has suggested customers don’t shop much outside of what is familiar, and trying new species of fish is unlikely unless it is on promotion,” says Spiro.  

Retail support 

One recent successful new product venture is Claresse (Heteroclarias spp), which is Netherlands-based Anova Seafood B.V.’s trademarked fish that was launched into Europe in 2007.

Essentially a hybrid of two varieties of catfish, Claresse has a firm texture and a mild flavor that suits several preparation methods. It is only sold as fresh fillets, most of which goes into retail.

Claresse is currently sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and France. Italy is also interested in the product and sales into the market could start this summer, says Hendrik Colpaert, unit manager marketing and retail, Anova Seafood. Colpaert attributes a lot of the product’s success to the strong relationships it builds with carefully selected retailers.

“Because it’s a new species and any such product requires extra communication, we researched which retailers would be most keen on promoting the fish,” he says. “European consumers are very limited in the number of species that they know and that they will eat; they stick to four or five species and with each they have a very good idea of what meal they can prepare with it. It’s different to meat, where people are much more open and willing to trying different things.

“That’s why when you come up with a new species it’s very important that you motivate along the whole supply chain and find retailers that are willing to invest in trying to convince consumers that this is a product they should try.

“The retailers that are taking Claresse want to do more with it and bring it more to the attention of customers through promotions and in-store activities. They can trust it and they know it will always be fresh due to the farm’s close proximity to the market.”

Between 5,000 and 8,000 metric tons of Claresse is being produced annually in covered ponds at a farm in the south of the Netherlands. The technology in place wastes very little water or energy, while the feed-to-growth conversion ratio is less than 1:1, which makes it one of the most sustainable aquaculture products available in the market and gives it a key selling point with retailers.

Colpaert says Claresse is exclusive in the way that it is farmed but it’s a fish that a large percentage of the consumer market can afford. In stores, it is sold at between €15 and €20 ($19 to $25) per kilogram, which is the ballpark area for farmed salmon.

“It’s not a product that’s intended for special occasions, it’s positioned in such a way that it’s affordable to everyone as an everyday meal,” he says, adding that San Francisco-based CleanFish is investigating potential U.S. distribution. 

Striking a balance 

European projects like Claresse are unfortunately thin on the grounds and the EU’s own aquaculture output totals just 1.3 million metric tons. Furthermore, at least one-third of the €20 billion ($25.2 billion) worth of seafood products that it imports each year comes from overseas aquaculture.

This imbalance hasn’t escaped the attention of Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries commissioner, who says Europe needs to raise its game and establish an environment that encourages aquaculture innovation. 

Speaking in May at an international conference on the future of aquaculture that had been jointly organized by the European Commission and the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture, Damanaki said it was essential that Europe identify the factors that were preventing its aquaculture industry from flourishing.

She warned that if this wasn’t achieved, and that if the EU doesn’t “roll up its sleeves,” it risks “a phenomenon like ‘carbon leakage.’” 

“Our industry will die and we will increasingly import aquatic food from elsewhere, without guarantee that the same standards will have been respected,” she said. 

Cutting red tape will encourage investments, said Damanaki, and to enable the sector to develop at pace it needs to be much more actively supported and promoted. 

But it’s not just producers that would appreciate a more pro-farming stance from European policymakers. According to Anova’s Colpaert, retailers are more mindful of the importance of sourcing European seafood. 

“There’s no way we could farm all the fish that we need in Europe and there are a lot of good fish-farming initiatives in places like Asia and Latin America and we should support them. But for the future, we need to work on achieving a better balance and support fisheries and farmers in Europe too,” he says.

Hajipieris holds a similar view. Rather than emulating the success of developing nations by producing large volumes of fast-growing fish, he believes European aquaculture should be encouraged to focus on high-quality production, not least because the competition for coastal space in Europe poses a major challenge to the economic development of fish farming.

“The wind farm industry, construction, tourism, fishermen, etc. are all vying for space and the EU has not resolved that issue,” says Hajipieris.

Despite Iglo’s overwhelming sourcing footprint being in wild fish, the company recognizes the importance of aquaculture producing 50 percent of global seafood supply. It was for this reason that he led the creation of the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO) Global Standard for Responsible Supply and why Iglo sponsors him to sit on the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Supervisory Board.

“For all species, it goes without saying that [Iglo] will not source unless [producers] operate to our codes of practice, which we independently audit to certified Responsible Fish Farms standards. Currently, we also source from a variety of platforms including GAA (Global Aquaculture Alliance), GlobalGAP and are working toward ASC where available,” says Hajipieris.

There is an overriding feeling from both industry and state that if production barriers were removed and more of the right farmed fish were produced in Europe, perhaps in land-based facilities, and marketed as a progressive industry that long-term success would ensue.

But as Damanaki points out, the danger from a commercial perspective is, with aquaculture set to remain one of the fastest-growing segments of the global food industry, it would be a major opportunity missed if Europe were to do nothing.

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London 

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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