« December 2007 Table of Contents
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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.
Selling tilapia as a healthy food means more pressure on
suppliers to make sure farming practices abroad are up to U.S.
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
Contributing Editor Thyra Porter lives in Cape Elizabeth,