« September 2008 Table of Contents
Top 10 Species: Tilapia
China freeze hampers supply, pushes prices up for the popular fish
By Christine Blank
September 01, 2008
With China's position as the world's largest tilapia
producer, importers openly admit they were scrambling after a
winter freeze there killed off a large portion of the farmed
"When we were first aware of the freeze, we scoured the
country. The goal was to gain a larger share of their
production," says Charles Trager, director of procurement for
Beaver Street Fisheries of Jacksonville, Fla., which lost 20 to
25 percent of its Chinese production at the time.
"Not all the farms and ponds were destroyed, but in some
regions, they had to re-seed the ponds," says Troy Turkin,
executive VP of sales and marketing at importer Newport
International in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The freeze - along with continued high demand for tilapia -
pushed up prices in the first half of 2008.
"Prices are substantially higher than they were a year ago.
The days of $1 and $2 for mainstream fish are possibly gone for
the long term," says Turkin.
As a result, frozen tilapia imports fell from 163 million
pounds through June 2007 to 151 million pounds through June
this year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Imports of fresh tilapia, meanwhile, rose from 31 million
pounds through June 2007 to 34 million pounds through this
Fresh tilapia volume from Tropical Aquaculture Products'
farms in Brazil, Columbia and Ecuador had normal increases and
decreases for the beginning and end of the first half of 2008,
says John Schramm, president of the Rutland, Vt., company.
While Beaver Street Fisheries, one of the largest U.S.
tilapia importers, was impacted by the China freeze, it quickly
contracted with other plants for additional supply.
"By late July and August, we started to see some of that
production arriving through the pipeline. Supply is steady, but
not enough for the demand,"
As a result, Beaver Street's wholesale prices have risen to
an average of $3 a pound wholesale for frozen 3-5-ounce
fillets, according to Trager.
Suppliers have seen retail prices that are up $1 to $2 a
pound over the same time last year, reaching up to $8.99 a
Retail prices for Food Lion, the 1,300-store chain in
Salisbury, N.C., owned by the Delhaize Group of Brussels,
Belgium, have increased about $1 a pound over last year.
Tilapia is selling at supermarkets for between $4.99 and
$5.99 a pound on average, and is typically promoted at between
$3.99 and $4.99 a pound - about $1 higher than last year's
promoted price, says Karen Peterson, a Food Lion
Retail prices at Publix Super Markets of Lakeland, Fla.,
have increased only slightly because the 940-store chain
purchases only fresh tilapia from Central and South America.
The average retail price rose from $5.56 a pound last year to
$5.64 a pound so far in 2008, says Maria Brous, a Publix
"The lack of frozen in the marketplace has pressured fresh,
but we have not been impacted,"
Food Lion, on the other hand, has raised its prices.
"The entire supply chain has been strained due to the harsh
[China] winters of 2007 and 2008. Our [tilapia] supply hasn't
been directly impacted, but costs have increased," says
At the same time, retailers and foodservice operators are
not pricing consumers out of the market, according to
"Retailers are doing a really good job of getting the
product to the consumer at a price that enables volume
movement," says Schramm. Restaurant chains are also doing well
with tilapia and have developed innovative recipes, he
The price pressure will likely be felt more on larger
fillets, since farmers will sell the smaller sizes for strong
prices while there is a high demand.
"The traditional spread between your small, medium and large
fillets has become greater," says Beaver Street's Trager.
In addition to shorter supply and higher prices, the tilapia
industry is also battling a study claiming that farmed tilapia
contains a potentially harmful balance of omega-3 and omega-6
fatty acids for patients vulnerable to inflammation. The study,
published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association
in July, found that farmed tilapia's ratio of omega-6 to
omega-3 fatty acids is 11:1. The study was authored by Floyd
"Ski" Chilton, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology
and director of the Wake Forest Center for Botanical Lipids. He
is author of the 2005 book "Inflammation Nation," which pegs
inflammation as the underlying cause of heart disease,
allergies and asthma.
Seafood groups, tilapia importers and medical organizations
immediately criticized the study.
"Countering data was quickly released by others in the
academic and medical fields, such as the Mayo Clinic," says
An international group of more than a dozen doctors and
researchers published an open letter supporting farmed tilapia
and criticizing the study.
"Tilapia and catfish are examples of lower-fat fish that
have fewer omega-3s than oily fish … but still provide more of
these heart-healthy nutrients than hamburger, steak, chicken,
pork or turkey," wrote William Harris, Ph.D., director of the
Metabolism and Nutrition Research Center at the University of
South Dakota-Sioux Falls, and part of the group of doctors
critical of the study.
"It is very misleading science. The health information about
tilapia has been well published," says Schramm.
In addition, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that
boneless, skinless tilapia features a 1.4:1 ratio of omega-6 to
omega-3 fatty acids. Chilton has not disclosed his methodology
and exact product form tested, notes Schramm.
In order to publicize the correct information on tilapia,
Tropical Aquaculture and Aquamericas of Virginia Beach, Va.,
launched a Web site, www.abouttilapia.co m , supporting the
tilapia industry and tilapia's health benefits.
Fortunately, most suppliers and retailers have not noticed a
sales impact from the study.
"We did not receive many inquiries regarding omega-6s. It is
too early to tell if the story has impacted sales," says Brous
However, Publix executives took quick action by getting
information on omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids to
its stores right away.
"Tilapia is on the lower end of the retail price per pound
and seems to be most sensitive to price. Health concerns have
had little impact on sales," says Peterson of Food Lion.
Consumer interest peaks
While tilapia buyers are dealing with supply problems and
price increases, the good news is that consumers are still
"It is still one of the best values on the market, compared
to other widely available farmed species that are out there,"
says Turkin of Newport International.
"Tilapia consumption has increased significantly over the
last three years and continues to surpass expectations. Low
cost, ease of preparation and mild flavor allow this fish to
appeal to a large audience," says Peterson of Food Lion.
As a result, tilapia is Food Lion's second best-selling
fish, behind salmon. "At the current rate, it will surpass
salmon within the next three years as the No. 1 fish item,
excluding shellfish," says Peterson.
In addition, Food Lion and Delhaize's other banners have
expanded tilapia offerings "through additional items and
packaging sizes to meet the needs of the customer," adds
Due to the lackluster economy, some consumers may be trading
down to pork, chicken and other meats that are traditionally
less expensive than fish. Once they get adjusted to the changes
in the economy, they will likely return to purchasing more
tilapia, suppliers say.
"Skinless, boneless tilapia fillets are arguably more
expensive than chicken, pork and beef, so the health benefits
[of tilapia] are going to be a major factor. It will take
awhile for consumers to adjust their food budgets," says
In addition, tilapia has
consistently been one of the most
popular fish species over the last few years and its popularity
will likely only continue to improve.
"U.S. demand is still there. Retailers who raised their
prices from $3.99 to $6.99 a pound thought they would lose
sales, but that didn't happen … and foodservice sells a lot of
tilapia," says Trager of Beaver Street Fisheries.
"Tilapia is popular in the United States because it meets
that profile that our country likes: white meat and mild
flavor. The fact that it is farm-raised makes it readily
available and keeps the price low," says Brous of Publix.
Publix offers packaged, crab-stuffed tilapia fillets, among
other value-added tilapia products. In addition, the retailer
promotes tilapia via cooking demonstrations with its "Aprons
Simple Meals" program.
Tilapia demand is expected to stay strong throughout this
year and next. "Once kids go back to school and families start
eating more normal meals, tilapia starts to ramp up again,"
Despite the decreased volume for the first part of this
year, some suppliers anticipate steady to slightly higher
volume this fall and winter.
"Supply is gong to stay relatively flat until September or
October, with very modest increases for early 2009," adds
However, importers and wholesalers do not expect much relief
on price pressure.
"While prices may seem high, they are marginally survivable
[for producers] as feed costs continue to increase. If prices
decrease, it will cause more damage within the current supply
chain," says Schramm.
"As long as there is a shortage, this [strong price] is
going to continue. We're all in a bidding war right now, and
farmers are willing to allow the price to go up and up, as we
fight with each other," says Trager.
"Based on the life cycle of this fish, we expect the impact
to be felt throughout the industry for another six to eight
months," says Food Lion's Peterson.
Christine Blank is a business writer and editor in Lake