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Product Spotlight: Greenlip mussels

Dynamic U.S. expansion projected for New Zealand mussels

Greenlips are grown on suspended longlines, which
    produces a grit-free mussel. - Photo courtesy of Kono New Zealand
By April Forristall
February 01, 2008

New Zealand's greenlip mussels have become a hit in the United States over the past decade. Imports increased 90 percent from 1990 to 2007, with 2007's greenlip mussel totals through October reaching nearly 24 million pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"There is no question that the demand specifically for greenlip mussels in the United States is dramatically rising," says John Wahl, president of Kono USA, a branch of Nelson, New Zealand-based Kono New Zealand. "The U.S. consumer is realizing that there is a superior mussel product."

Greenlips, also known as greenshells, are grown on suspended longlines, making them grit free. Since mussels are filter feeders, the water they are raised in holds significant importance. New Zealand's reputation for unpolluted waters puts a premium on the country's mussels.

"New Zealand is known for its pristine, clean waters," says Conrad Esser, director of business development for New Zealand Seafoods in Los Angeles. "Something other parts of the world that produce mussels can't offer."

The frozen product's shelf life ranges from 16 to 18 months, so product availability is rarely an issue for seafood buyers.

"It's a commodity that's readily available from six or seven producers out of New Zealand," says Esser, whose company handles both imports and exports of greenlips. "If the South Island is having problems because of weather, etc., the North [Island] can pick up production."

Greenlips' meat-to-shell ratio is superior to other mussel species, fueling both value and popularity. "Immediate feedback from consumers is, 'I've never seen a mussel this big in my life,'" says Wahl. "The meat size alone is typically bigger than the entire shell of a blue mussel."

After exporting bulk greenlips to the United States for about eight years, Kono has received favorable response to its recent push into retail, selling for up to $5.99 per tray at stores like Whole Foods, and often replacing other mussel species on shelves and at restaurants. Wahl does retail product demos to help introduce and educate consumers about the mussels.

"When we demo the product, we typically sell out of it," says Wahl. "We bring a microwave and the smell and taste of the product attracts people."

Still, the industry is not without challenges. Wahl admits that without in-store demos, retail sales decline. Esser says the depreciating U.S. dollar's effect on prices could be an issue in the coming months.

"When we try to make an appointment to show the product, often times we'll hear, 'Well, we've tried mussels in the past and it didn't work.' We'll ask what type of mussels and they won't even know, or it was that the price point was too high," Wahl says. "We need to continue to get over that hurdle and show that, specifically, green-
lip mussels are an entirely different species."

And consumers can be as hesitant as professional buyers. "Two out of 10 will walk by [the demo] and say, 'I don't eat mussels.' But others just do it out of disdain or they're just not receptive to the idea," he says. "If we can get somebody to taste it, it's amazing. They often end up not only liking it, but buying the product."

The U.S. dollar isn't worth as much in foreign markets as it used to be. Currency, combined with a short supply in early 2008 due to a late spawning season, raised wholesale prices beyond the average $1.70 per pound.

"Right now prices are between $1.75 and $1.85, depending on the coast," says Esser. "[In the past] the market has not been able to hold over $1.90 for very long." But the demand for the mussels is still there, and Esser says the market can handle it, losing spot purchases, but not major importers. And Wahl and Esser agree that the market will continue to grow. It's by their own merit that greenlips will continue to do well in the U.S. market, adds Esser.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com


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