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Top 10 Species: Tilapia

Import safety hype pressures tilapia companies to ensure documented farming practices

By Thyra Porter
December 01, 2007

A funny thing happened on the way to the tilapia market recently: Buyers are now more concerned about the way the fish is raised than how much it costs. Blame the intense media focus on quality issues coming from Chinese-produced goods of any kind, from farmed fish to tires to toys like the Polly Pocket play set.

Safe fish-farming practices are catching the attention and the money of those buying tilapia ( Tilapia spp.), a species rapidly climbing in popularity among U.S. consumers.

For seafood suppliers who have been active in ensuring there are strict food-safety practices regarding how tilapia is farmed, the sudden concern from buyers was welcome.

"For years we sat in buyer meetings and they only wanted to know what the cheapest price was," says John Victoria, president of Western Edge Seafood in Washington, Pa., which sells tilapia to major grocery chains, among other markets.

But after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an import alert on farmed shrimp, catfish, basa, eel and dace (a carp relative) from China this past summer, customers became far more interested in how suppliers were raising their fish.

"Since all the news broke about questionable fish-farming practices in China, now [seafood buyers'] eyes don't glaze over anymore when we talk about our safety practices," Victoria says.

"While we've always talked about quality and safety, until three months ago all buyers wanted was the cheapest product," Victoria says. "Now they are sitting up in their chairs when we talk about policies and procedures for food safety. Three months ago they would just look out the window. They just wanted low prices."

Western Edge's tilapia business has doubled over the past three months, says Victoria. While he won't divulge specifics, he says that the company has seen a 10 percent increase in price over the past 90 days.

"We expect those increases to continue," Victoria says.

Frozen 7- to 9-ounce tilapia fillets from China went for $2 to $2.10 per pound in mid November, compared with $1.90 to $2 in mid-September, according to Urner Barry Publications in Toms River, N.J.

Part of the upsurge in price is a rise in energy and transportation costs affecting the rest of the seafood industry. Also, thanks to heightened testing and paperwork, product that used to take six to eight weeks to arrive from China, now is more likely to take 10 to 12 weeks. And there is a higher probability of a container being detained by the FDA for testing, further delaying the process.

Rising fuel costs are also a concern for those marketing fresh tilapia, says John Schramm, president of Tropical Aquaculture in Rutland, Vt. "The marketplace is more and more concerned with supply-chain management," says Schramm.

"We all want the freshest fish possible and we are all under pressure from retailers to provide that from farm to airplane," says Schramm, who adds his firm can get fish from a farm in Ecuador to any market in the United States in less than 24 hours.


Tilapia gains market favor

Despite the concerns over safe farming practices, Schramm and others in the industry say U.S. consumers have been putting more tilapia on their plates. Tilapia can be found on the menus of most major casual-dining chains, from the seafood-centric Red Lobster to the mainstream Ruby Tuesday's. Tilapia also is widely available at supermarkets, club stores and specialty grocers nationwide.

Tilapia now ranks as the fifth most popular fish in the United States, according to the 2006 seafood consumption list compiled by the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va., pulling ahead of catfish for the first time. Tilapia is also more popular than crab, cod, clams and scallops.

"A few years ago tilapia wasn't on the [consumption list]," says Tom Sherman, VP of marketing for Icelandic USA in Newport News, Va. "Now it has surpassed catfish." Sherman says part of that gain can be attributed to countries regulating cod harvests for sustainability reasons.

Iceland, he says, has cut its cod quota by 30 percent this year. "That pushes up supply and demand, raising cod prices," Sherman says. "Tilapia, which is a sweet-tasting whitefish, looks more attractive as an alternative to cod to seafood buyers."

In mid-November, whole Atlantic cod blocks were going for $3.20 to $3.30 per pound, f.o.b. New England, 80 cents to a $1 more than frozen Chinese-farmed tilapia.

Tilapia was originally found swimming the Nile in eastern Africa but has been farmed for decades and now is among the most cultured species of fish in the world.

Nearly 84 percent of tilapia consumed in the United States comes frozen from China, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

U.S. tilapia imports surged to more than 349 million pounds in 2006, up 17 percent from 2005 and 291 percent from 2000, according to a report issued this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The value of tilapia imports climbed to $483 million in 2006, 23 percent above the previous year and 376 percent higher than in 2000, according to the USDA.

Growth in shipments to the United States in 2006 came in all three product forms - frozen whole and fresh and frozen fillets - but the majority of the increase was due to higher imports of frozen tilapia fillets from China.

Since 2000, the USDA reports that tilapia imports have grown by 260 million pounds, with 59 percent of that increase coming from higher imports of filleted products. Imports of frozen whole fish had been the largest import category in terms of quantity, but since 2000 imports in this category have risen at a much slower rate than filleted products, the report notes.

The bulk of the fresh tilapia fillet supply comes from Central and South America, with the lion's share from Ecuador, Honduras and Costa Rica. Ecuador shipped 23.8 million pounds of fresh tilapia fillets to the United States in 2006, followed by Honduras with 15.8 million pounds and Costa Rica with 5.8 million pounds.

Three of the most common species cultivated for the United States are: Tilapia nilotica , an emerald-green tilapia known for its high yield and rapid growth; T. aureus , a cold-resistant strain; and T. mossambica , which has a red skin color.

In the United States, tilapia is farmed on small farms in the South and West, producing approximately 20 million pounds annually that is mainly sold live to niche Asian markets.

Part of the growing popularity of tilapia came as chain restaurants discovered the species and introduced it to their customers as a low-fat, mild-tasting whitefish.

Being served tilapia as an entrée while dining out provides a natural entry into the restaurant goer's home kitchen, says Icelandic USA's Sherman.

"When they see tilapia on the menus they are more inspired to buy it at the store and take it home and cook it," he adds.

Applebee's International, based in Overland Park, Kan., has heavily promoted its Weight Watchers® menu that prominently features tilapia. The chain is the country's largest casual-dining concept: At the end of 2006 there were 1,930 Applebee's restaurants in 49 states, allowing for major exposure.

"Tilapia is a very popular menu item for us because it has such a broad appeal nationwide," says Applebee's spokesperson Laura Tigges. "Our chefs love it because it has a blank canvas for flavor and you can marinate it, bread it and dress it up in many ways."

While tilapia is featured on both the regular and calorie-conscious sides of the menu, Tigges says the low-calorie fish allows Applebee's to give starving dieters a filling meal.

"Tilapia is ideal for us because of its great nutritional value," Tigges says. "You can give someone a good portion size: one that is satisfying but still meets their dietary needs."

Applebee's Cajun Lime Tilapia, for instance, comes in at 310 calories and 6 grams of fat. That's only 6 points for those of you plotting values on the popular Weight Watchers system.


Safety first

Selling tilapia as a healthy food means more pressure on suppliers to make sure farming practices abroad are up to U.S. standards.

For Western Edge's Victoria, this means working with farmers who are outside of industrial areas to assure clean water: for example the waters off China's pristine Hainan Island. The company has its own inspectors who assure that no hormones are used and that the feed is all-natural.

"We have a quality-control inspector on site, and traceability audits of all our plants," Victoria says. "We have a six-point check system that audits all of our standards and we have private lab testing. We also do FDA inspections in this country and we spot check at least once a month by sending product to a private U.S. lab," Victoria says.

In the future, he says there 
are plans for a company-owned lab in China.

For the fresh fish market, Schramm assures buyers that the Ecuadoran farms that raise Tropical Aquaculture's tilapia are run in a responsible, sustainable way.

"The fish live in a natural growing environment, not in cages where they can't move around," he says. That sort of background makes the fish taste better, he points out.

Price, quality and taste are all reasons that tilapia is gaining in acceptance, and if ancient stories are right, that growth is on track to continue. Legend has it, after all, that tilapia was the fish Jesus fed to the masses during one of his miracles, earning the species the moniker ,"St. Peter's fish."


Contributing Editor Thyra Porter lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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