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Top 10 Species: Clams

The popular filter feeder takes on a healthy role

By Thyra Porter
November 01, 2007

Researchers believe man's first clambake may have taken place on the South African coast more than 160,000 years ago, making clams perhaps the first seafood harvested by our ancient ancestors.

And clams remain a favorite among consumers today, whether cooked into chowders and pastas or served up raw on the half shell.

"Clam consumption is growing," says Rocco Ruggerio, president of Ruggerio Seafood in Newark, N.J., which deals mostly with imported clams.

Clams in the U.S. market are both farmed and wild, and sold live and processed in a variety of forms. Frozen, canned and fresh product is available all year, though peak clam season is in spring and summer.

Surf clams ( Spisula solidissima ) are the "fried clams" most restaurant menus feature. They average from 4 1/2 to 8 inches across and are taken by hydraulic dredges from sand or gravel habitats to depths of 10 to 300 feet, largely on the East Coast, from Long Island to Virginia.

Surf clams are too coarse to be eaten live and are processed onshore, where the "tongue" is used for fried clam strips. Most of the other surf clam meat is processed for soups and pasta sauces.

For most consumers, Mercenaria mercenaria , also known as the hardshell or quahog, is the clam of note. Hardshells are the most valuable U.S. clam species mostly steamed, or offered raw on the halfshell.

While harvested by hardy diggers with rakes and muck boots, the hard-shell clam is also widely farmed along the East Coast in States from Maine to Florida.

Dr. Michael Peirson, managing director of Cherrystone Aqua Farms in Cheriton, Va., says farming clams can be a tricky business for those growers dealing with the warmer waters of the southeastern Atlantic seaboard.

One of the great challenges for anyone harvesting and selling clams in warmer waters, says Peirson, is meeting federal and state time-temperature matrices during the summer months for food-safety requirements.

That means that harvested clams must be kept in waters below 45 degrees F.

"And the warmer-water clams have had a problem holding texture," when dumped from their warmwater homes into colder water, Peirson notes.

Keeping clams alive and at a safe temperature is a process more complicated than storing fish fillets.

What has evolved at Cherrystone is a multi-step clam-revival process that takes place over several hours that Peirson says eliminates any textural problems. After harvest, the clams are brought into a series of temperature-controlled rooms: The first is maintained at 65 degrees, the second keeps a temperature of about 58 degrees and then the clams move on to the mandated 45-degree storage.

Florida's Paul Zajicek says those "textural problems" are just "urban legend," but admits that perception has lowered the prices of clams farmed in warmer waters.

"Florida prices are always lower-priced than the Northeast," says Zajicek, biological administrator for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "I call it a bias in the marketplace for Southern clams."

The hurricane activity raging along the southern Atlantic coast in the past decade hasn't helped farmed-clam production either, says Leslie Sturmer, shellfish aquaculture extension agent at the University of Florida.

"While we are in recovery mode, it is a slow process and some growers have dropped out of the business," Sturmer notes. "Statewide production has dropped significantly," she says of the Florida market.

"Pricing peaked back in 1998, and our prices are down 25 percent since that point," says Peirson, who predicts that the average 15 cent-per-clam price will remain stable over the next few years, but not yet recovering the peak levels prior to the tumultuous weather.

There's also a larger issue.

"There are too many people in aquaculture," Peirson explains. "Some little guys are getting in, they are undercutting the market and are not invested in doing the research and development work they need to do that helps the entire industry."

While research and technology are important, others say that marketing may be the way to lift the entire clam industry, including frozen and processed clams from both the United States and other shores, thanks to a new nutritional focus.

Rather than play up the differences between markets, why not play up the delicious and nutritious end results, says Guy Simmons, VP of marketing for Seawatch International in Easton, Md., which bills itself as one of the world's largest clam harvesters and processors. And while clams are known for their fried tastiness, Simmons suggests another tact.

He cites the highly successful Alaska seafood marketing campaign as inspiration for Seawatch's recent foray into a marketing and public relations campaign promoting clams. That means playing up nutrition, sustainability and good taste.

Sea Watch's latest cam paign launched this year includes a recipe book that promotes the calorie count and more healthful aspects of cooking with clams.

The second edition of Seawatch's clam recipe book plays up low-calorie recipes that show how low-fat clams can be without the breading and deep fat cover: Simmons says the fat content in a 3-ounce surf clam serving is .63 grams of fat with zero grams of saturated fats, and 53 calories, which is low in any diet book.

"Clams are very nutritional, low in fat, high in protein and have very few carbohydrates," Simmons says, adding the industry's only focus on cooking clams to this point has targeted high-fat dishes.

"We've been concentrating on frying clams and putting them into creamy chowders," Simmons says. "As an industry, to build more business, that has to change."

In addition to promoting the clam's nutritious aspects, another hurdle is to convince consumers to cook the bivalve at home.

"The current thinking among producers of clams is that consumers are more apt to eat clams in a restaurant than serve them up on a dinner table," says the University of Florida's Sturmer. "If they don't go out to eat because they are watching their budgets, that leads to fewer clams sold all around."

Pierson says that's changing. "Much more of our sales are going to grocery chains now, as compared to a few years ago." He estimates nearly 60 percent of the clams harvested at Cherrystone now go to grocery chains.

"Ten years ago we saw the entire catch go to seafood shops and restaurants," he noted. "True, after Sept. 11 when fewer people went out to restaurants, sales did fall off, but pricing and sales have been stable for the last couple of years. I think more consumers are catching on to cooking clams at home."

 

Contributing Editor Thyra Porter lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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