« December 2006 Table of Contents
Species Focus: Blue crab
The demand for crabmeat heats up as producers rush to market with more value-added products
By Rick Ramseyer
December 01, 2006
There's no shortage of seafood companies selling crab cakes
these days, including the likes of Phillips Foods and Handy
International. But the list is about to get longer: At least
three major blue crab importers - Crab Associates, Byrd
International and Twin Tails Seafood - are introducing new or
forthcoming crab-cake products, potentially heating up demand
for crabmeat this year and beyond.
Blue crab, long a regional offering from the Chesapeake to
the Gulf of Mexico, has evolved into a national commodity in
both foodservice and retail channels, spurred largely by the
ready availability of low-cost imported crabmeat, especially
the Portunus genus of swimming crab.
And though crabmeat is used in everything from salads to
soups and sauces, the lion's share ends up in crab cakes, which
in recent years have joined the lineup at casual-dining chains
such as Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday and Bennigan's Grill &
Tavern. They're also popular appetizers at seafood houses like
McCormick & Schmick's and Bonefish Grill.
Crab Associates in Pinellas Park, Fla., with annual sales of
around $30 million, recently began producing
foodservice-destined crab cakes with a partner in Florida.
"We provide the crabmeat to them, and they formulate it and
blend it," says David Fair, managing partner of the company,
which annually imports about 2.5 million pounds of pasteurized
crabmeat and another 1 million pounds of frozen crabmeat from
The new 3.5-ounce cakes, made with 75 percent crabmeat, are
sold under the Pacific Cove brand. Up next for Crab Associates,
which additionally provides colossal lump and backfin lump
crabmeat to the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain, is supplying
retail-ready frozen crab cakes to Fresh Market, a 60-unit
specialty grocer in Greensboro, N.C., and Whole Foods Market,
with 180-plus U.S. locations.
The crab cakes for Whole Foods of Austin, Texas - offered
two or six to a package, as well as in a 30-piece appetizer
pack - will be available in early 2007 and are made with
organic vegetables and an approved list of spices and
"We were one of the only companies that wasn't doing crab
cakes, so we wanted to have something unique," Fair says.
Another player, Byrd International, which last year imported
2 million pounds of blue crab, is rolling out crab cakes as
"We never did a crab cake until [two months ago], and we
sold our first run of it into a lot of foodservice places down
here," says Kim Bishop, accounting and marketing manager for
Byrd in Berlin, Md.
Marketed under the Chesapeake Tradition brand, the crab
cakes come in 4-ounce and 3.25-ounce sizes, all made with 65
percent meat (mostly lump) and packed 12 to
Twin Tails Seafood in Miami, an importer of blue crab from
Venezuela and blue-swimming crab from Southeast Asia, is
"investing in plants to produce certain value-added items - and
the first ones will be crab cakes for foodservice customers,"
says Carlos Sarria, marketing manager, who was expecting the
first shipment by year's end.
Twin Tails is also developing retail crab cakes for
introduction in the first half of 2007, Sarria adds.
Handy International in Crisfield, Md., meanwhile, has been
making crab cakes for 15 years as part of its value-added
"There's at least 20 crab cake producers out there now,"
says Terry Conway, chairman of Handy, which additionally
handles domestic and imported softshell crabs and imported
pasteurized crabmeat. "So it's a growth area of the
Fuel costs, weather take toll
Despite rising demand for blue crab, U.S. imports of the
Portunus and Callinectes genus collectively dipped 5 percent
during the first eight months of 2006, to 28.9 million pounds,
compared with the same period a year ago, according to the
National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Supply is not keeping up with demand right now," says Mark
Sneed, president of Phillips Foods, which produces 14 million
pounds annually, sourced from places like Indonesia, Vietnam,
China and India.
"Fuel is a global issue, but it's particularly acute in
Indonesia, where there were fuel subsidies before this year,"
Sneed explains. "We rely on small-boat fishermen who can't
afford a lot of fuel; the result is they can't go out as far
now, and they end up catching smaller crab, which is damaging
to yields and impacts costs negatively."
Moreover, a slow start to the rainy season in Indonesia -
the top producer of U.S.-bound pasteurized crabmeat - is
slowing the harvest.
"We haven't seen conditions like this before in our time in
Asia," Sneed says. "Not that it won't correct itself when the
rains start, but it doesn't solve the issue of fuel or the
[weak] U.S. dollar."
Through August, Indonesia sent a total of 9.6 million pounds
of crabmeat to the United States, down from 10.2 million pounds
for the same period in 2005. Other major suppliers are China,
Vietnam and Thailand.
Regarding frozen product, China is the leading importer,
with 1.5 million pounds of frozen crabmeat shipped through
August, up from 1.4 million pounds for the same period in
Newport International in St. Petersburg, Fla., was the
largest packer out of China last year. The company, which also
sources from Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines,
has "developed a new process that allows us to produce the crab
four to five days faster than is traditionally done in the
industry in China," says Troy Turkin, executive VP of sales and
marketing. "It's going to provide a much better quality product
[that] is firmer, sweeter and has a better texture."
Byrd International is another significant importer, with
plants in Thailand, China and Indonesia. Byrd also co-packs
crabmeat in the Philippines, says Bishop, and was set to begin
co-packing in Vietnam in late 2006.
Not everyone sources from Asia, of course. Ocean Technology
in Arnold, Md., handles several million pounds of crabmeat a
year - 90 percent of it pasteurized - with the majority
stemming from Mexico and an increasing amount from South
"We're kind of in a niche market, because we're only
producing crabs from the Callinectes genus," says Bob Stryker,
president of Ocean Technology. The company sells an 8-ounce
container at retail and a 16-ounce package for foodservice,
both under the All Natural brand.
"Our demand has been tremendous," Stryker notes.
In late October, 16-ounce cans of pasteurized Asian crabmeat
were priced in the $15.50 to $16 range for jumbo lump, $9.25 to
$9.75 range for backfin and lump, $8.25 to $8.50 for backfin,
$6.50 to $6.75 for special and $4.25 to $4.75 for claw,
according to Urner Barry Publications in Toms River, N.J.
Pasteurized Venezuelan crabmeat was listed in the $14.50 to
$14.75 range for jumbo lump, $6.50 to $7 for backfin and lump,
$4.50 to $5 for backfin, $5 to $5.25 for special and $3.75 to
$4 for claw.
The harvest of domestic blue crab ( Callinectes sapidus )
was hindered by inclement weather this season and was
lackluster. In late October, No. 1 Jimmies fetched $65 to $75 a
bushel, up from $30 to $35 in the summer, while No. 2s brought
$30 to $40, up from summertime prices of $20 to $25.
Prices for softshell crabs remained high throughout the
season. Whales and jumbos topped $50 a dozen in April, but
slipped under $20 in the summer when the fishery peaked. By
summer's end, whales climbed back to $40 to $45 a dozen, while
jumbos were $25 to $35.
The U.S. blue crab industry has taken its share of lumps in
recent years, with the double-whammy of tightened fishing
restrictions to protect stocks and the onslaught of
"It's been said that out of every 3 pounds of crabmeat in
the United States, 2 pounds are imported," says Joe Cardwell,
marketing specialist for the Virginia Marine Products Board in
Newport News. He
cites Callinectes crabmeat from Venezuela in
particular for keeping domestic prices down and forcing East
Coast processors and picking houses out of business.
"Venezuela has a year-round [operation]," Cardwell says,
"and they flood the market."
Still, blue crab remains a significant economic driver along
Through June, Virginia watermen harvested more than 1.5
million pounds of blue crab - up slightly from a year ago -
with the majority of crabmeat from that catch ending up in
regional grocery chains such as Ukrops and Wegmans, says
In North Carolina, the 2005 blue crab haul approached 23.6
million pounds, with a dockside value of almost $15.4 million.
The state's marketing efforts include "working with chefs
throughout the state to develop and promote blue crab recipes,"
William Small, seafood marketing supervisor for the Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Raleigh, stated via
The Capital Grille in Charlotte, for example, features the
North Carolina Blue Crab & Avocado Salad with Ruby
Grapefruit Vinaigrette, created by executive chef Tony
In Maryland, where blue crab landings last year were 32
million pounds valued at $38.1 million, domestic crabmeat is a
staple at local grocery stores, as well as at seafood
restaurants like Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis; and
Suicide Bridge and Harris Crab House, both on the Eastern
In recent years Maryland has used newspaper, radio and TV
ads to remind consumers that the blue crab season is open until
"With hard crabs, the demand is between Memorial Day and
Labor Day, but the harvest peaks August through October," says
Noreen Eberly, director of the seafood and aquaculture program
for the state's Department of Agriculture in Annapolis. "That's
always been a challenge to get people to think about eating
crabs and crabmeat after Labor Day."
Retail, foodservice inroads
Refrigerated or frozen crabmeat (and, increasingly, crab
cakes) have become commonplace at national supermarket chains
clude Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, Albertson's, Giant,
Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Hannaford, Ahold, Publix and Trader
And seafood companies are still finding ways to tap that
market. Earlier this year, Crab Associates introduced 8-ounce
and 16-ounce clear-plastic cups of crabmeat at Whole Foods and
Fresh Market. (And the price is steep, in the neighborhood of
$34 per pound for jumbo lump, one of six varieties.)
"The average [consumer] is able to walk into the retailer
and say, 'Wow, look at the big pieces of jumbo lump in this,"
Crab Associates is also preparing private-label crabmeat for
H-E-B supermarkets in San Antonio that should be ready in time
In the foodservice world, blue crab plays a serious role on
many a menu. But few seafood players rival Phillips, where blue
crab items represent more than 65 percent of the lineup at its
eight full-service restaurants in Maryland, Washington, D.C.,
Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Atlantic City, N.J.
Phillips is getting further exposure via concession
providers such as HMSHost Corp. in Bethesda, Md., which has
license agreements to run Phillips outlets in airports in
Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C., with more
sites slated for Norfolk, Va.; Islip, N.Y.; and Atlanta.
"We also sell Host quite a substantial amount of product
that they put on menus around the country," Sneed says. "But
it's still sold under the Phillips brand."
All told, despite challenges in the blue crab industry, both
domestically and abroad, seafood representatives expect demand
to continue to rise, especially for crabmeat.
"It's a commodity that's withstood the test of time - it's
been around for 100 years," says Stryker of Ocean Technology.
"And I don't see that changing anytime soon."
Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland,