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Global Retail: Slow burner
Tilapia needs to overcome many hurdles to become a success in Europe
By Jason Holland
January 01, 2013
As a product, tilapia ticks many boxes. It is available in large volumes; it’s mild in flavor and easy to cook; it freezes and defrosts well; and it’s very affordable. From a production perspective, the fish is sustainably farmed using little, if any, marine feeds; and it’s a very fast growing and resilient species.
While these characteristics have undoubtedly contributed to tilapia earning the No. 4 spot on the National Fisheries Institute’s top 10 list of the most consumed seafood species in the United States, across the pond the same fish has had nowhere near the same measure of success. The figures don’t lie — the EU imported 20,700 metric tons (MT) of tilapia products in 2011, while U.S. imports topped 192,000 MT and the gap is forecast to be much wider when the 2012 statistics are published.
There are two weighty reasons why tilapia hasn’t triumphed in Europe thus far. Firstly, it’s significantly more expensive than pangasius; and secondly, a lot of the tilapia that has found its way into the market in the last 10 years has been of poor quality, which has tarnished the fish’s reputation.
“Most of the product was from China and 90 percent of that fish is horrible. It looks horrible and it tastes horrible. That has done a lot of damage,” says Rudi Lamprecht, founder of tilapia producer Regal Springs, which operates farms in Central and South America.
“Also, the European market is about price, price and price. Pangasius has been extremely successful due to its price. And the nice pangasius is paper-white and very attractive looking.”
Swiss entrepreneur Lamprecht started Regal Springs in 1988 and today the group produces around 100,000 MT of live-weight equivalent tilapia per year. It exports about 1,200 MT of frozen and 750 MT of fresh tilapia to the United States each month, but ships just 250 MT to Europe.
Of the northern European countries, which are the most receptive markets, resistance to tilapia is at its strongest in the United Kingdom, which imported less than 675 MT of fresh and frozen tilapia products in 2011. Exporters can at least point to an increasing export trend as the market imported just 532 MT in the previous 12 months.
Regal has appointed Continental Seafoods Ltd. as its new U.K. distributor for its Aquaculture Stewardship Council-certified frozen tilapia from Indonesia. Continental will also soon add fresh products flown in from Mexico and Honduras to its portfolio.
“I believe tilapia has not been a great success before because nobody has been sufficiently committed to devote stock and time to creating the market,” says Continental’s director, Kit Smith.
“In the past it has been derided almost as a second-class fish — freshwater, produced in the East, regarded as an ethnic-relevant product rather than a mainstream one. I also think the quality of the product hasn’t been there for retailers and chefs who wanted to take it a bit more seriously; it’s been of a relatively inferior standard. As a result they believed that what was said about tilapia was all true. It’s been like a self-fulfilling prophecy and it’s hindered others coming in with products that are half-decent,” says Smith.
He is, however, confident that tilapia will find its position in the marketplace and win over more consumers, particularly as many continue to explore how to stretch household budgets.
“There will be more take-up once people get over the reputation that history has delivered tilapia and they understand that you’ve got a good quality product at a consistently affordable price,” says Smith. “It’s not a bottom-end product, but it’s certainly at the value end.”
But here, another obstacle presents itself. This time it’s the huge increases in next year’s total allowable catches of cod by Iceland and Norway/Russia, which have been set at 196,000 MT and 1 million MT, respectively. Cod prices are expected to tumble next year as a result, making the traditional U.K. favorite even more attractively positioned.
“It could be a problem. The average British consumer knows about cod, haddock and salmon. No one has really heard of tilapia,” says Richard Clarke, farm manager, The Fish Co.
Founded in 2008 by two Lincolnshire arable farmers who wanted to diversify into fish, The Fish Co. is the United Kingdom’s biggest tilapia producer, with an annual output of 250 MT of fish from its two indoor, closed-containment aquaculture facilities.
The company produces both red and black tilapia, although retail and foodservice buyers favor the red fish as it’s more visually appealing. Ethnic consumers, meanwhile, prefer black tilapia.
Most of the company’s product goes to retail and it has supply agreements in place with Morrisons and Tesco. The product is marketed as “Fresh British Tilapia” to distinguish it from imported frozen tilapia — a move that is paying off, says Clarke.
“We can’t compete with the price of imported frozen tilapia but we can compete with imported fresh. In fact, we are cheaper,” says Clarke. “From what [the retailers] have been telling us, I think we could sell a lot more fish. They could quite easily double or triple their orders. We know there’s room to increase.”
Clarke doesn’t doubt that tilapia will become more popular in the U.K. market, but he believes success could be expedited through in-store awareness initiatives for both supermarket staff and customers.
“Although we are selling 2 metric tons of fish per week to supermarkets, it’s not a great deal when you factor in that there’s 400 Tesco stores in the country. Whenever you go into supermarkets, you only see one or two tilapia on display and it doesn’t look appealing when you have so few fish.”
Smith, meanwhile, subscribes to the widely held view that for tilapia to be a success in U.K. retail, foodservice must buy into the fish first. Those chefs who have and continue to work with tilapia have praised its versatility, particularly its ability to take other flavors and sauces. They also like the fact that fillets are portion-sized and have a very clean, white appearance, he says. He also believes endorsement from a high-profile chef would break
down a few barriers.
“We are waking up to the realization that we haven’t got a bottomless pit of resource and everyone is becoming far more conscious in selecting their ingredients. Here we have a classic example of a product that’s been accredited, is plentiful, affordable, good quality and available at a very stable price. These are the sorts of things that foodservice wants to hear,” says Smith.
“We need somebody of relatively high standing to get behind the fish. We don’t want a campaigner; we want someone who is in the kitchen to bring attention to tilapia and engage the domestic audience.”
It’s not inconceivable that tilapia will become a more popular fish in the U.K., but one can’t help feeling that success is at the end of a long road and the journey has only just begun. Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London
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