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Both blue and greenshell markets are poised for growth

Americans are warming up to mussels, prompting more
    companies to source it. - Photo courtesy of Great Eastern Mussel Farms
By Lisa Duchene
November 01, 2006

Mussel marketers these days are looking to shrimp for inspiration. Value-added mussel products, such as recipe-ready, frozen meats, are the key to unlocking the full potential of the U.S. mussel market, some say, just as peeling, deveining and deheading helped make shrimp America's favorite seafood.

Blue mussels cooked in their shells, then vacuum-packaged and frozen in 1-pound servings have already expanded the foodservice market, says Michael Davis, president of PanaPesca USA in Pembroke, Mass.

"We see a continued growth trend in this category," notes Davis.

But others think it will take more than value-added products to do the trick.

"If you don't know what mussels are, why would you go to the supermarket and buy value-added ones?" asks Brian Fortune, owner of Atlantic Aquafarms, a Prince Edward Island mussel producer. There is no shortcut to consumer education, he says.

Chip Davison, president of Great Eastern Mussel Farms in Tenants Harbor, Maine, says the keys to expanding blue mussel's reach with consumers are marketing and shortening delivery times.

"That's [what] my goal is, to try to get product from the water in Maine or Canada and into the consumer's mouth faster. Then they'll have a really great experience, and you'll see the growth that you see in Europe."

Americans eat less than 5 ounces of mussels per capita, while Europeans eat far more than that. Lured by the prospect of Americans warming up to mussels, new players are jumping into the market, promoting the bivalve as inexpensive, nutritious, tasty and 

"We're definitely going to be a player in mussels," says Bert Bachmann, VP/general manager of Camanchaca in Miami. In the last year, the company built a new processing facility on an island off the southern coast of Chile to produce cooked and frozen-in-the-shell, vacuum-packed mussels, which retail for $2.99 to $3.99 per pound. Camanchaca has seen initial success selling the product at the Price Chopper chain in upstate New York.

New mussel products and consumer exposure are needed to broaden the market, he says.

"The general population hasn't had good exposure to eating mussels," says Bachmann. "We've got a lot of work to do in that department."

The mussel supply has been stable this year, and imports are down slightly, about 2.3 percent, from last year. In 2005, the market saw healthy growth, and imports increased 14 percent over 2004.

While the mussel market has not seen the explosive growth marketers dream of, there are some encouraging signs of steady, incremental growth. Many casual-dining restaurant chains, especially Italian chains like Carrabba's, Olive Garden and Bertucci's, menu steamed mussels. While growth in foodservice demand has been minimal the last few years, at around 2.5 percent annually, retail sales are up about 10 to 18 percent annually, says Fortune. A 2-pound bag of mussels typically retails for about $4 to $5.

Educating seafood department personnel is helping boost supermarket sales of mussels, which typically retail from $4 to $5 per 2-pound bag. Stephen Stewart, president and owner of Confederation Cove, a PEI mussel supplier, recently visited the Pitt­sburgh-based, 216-store Giant Eagle chain to teach 100 seafood managers all about mussels. Confederation Cove distributes in the U.S. market through J.P.'s Shellfish in Eliot, Maine.

"They see lots of room for growth," says Stewart. "It's very encouraging."

Retailers used to struggle with selling shellfish out of the seafood case, says Bob Sullivan, president of Plitt Seafood, a Chicago distributor. But that is changing.

"We have seen big increases in shellfish, in particular mussels," he says.

Mussel buyers paid more for Canadian product in 2006, due to the weakening U.S. dollar, which dipped as low as $1.10 versus the Canadian dollar in June, a drop of about 10 percent since late 2005.

Sullivan estimates the exchange issue has driven the price of Canadian blues up 50 percent over the last few years from 90 cents per pound, f.o.b. Boston, to $1.35 per pound, f.o.b. Boston.

Urner Barry in April, June and August listed prices of Maine mussels at 90 cents per pound and farmed Eastern mussels at $1.30 per pound.

Kiwis lead frozen import supply

New Zealand is the top U.S. supplier of fresh and frozen greenshell, or greenlipped, mussels ( Perna canaliculus ). Wild and farmed Kiwi product made up 55 percent of total U.S. mussel imports in 2005, representing 90 percent of imported frozen mussels 
and 59 percent of imported fresh, 
wild mussels.

The mussel season that ended in July was a bit disappointing, as winter came early to New Zealand, prompting mussels to spawn earlier than usual, says Bill Carroll, national sales manager for Kono New Zealand in Monument, Colo.

Mussels for the coming year look bigger and healthier, says Carroll, who expects the harvest to grow by 5 to 10 percent. Demand and pricing have been stable. The average price for frozen halfshells is $1.60 to $1.70 per pound to the importer (slightly more to the distributor).

Traditionally, the primary product form is IQF halfshells with the meat attached to the shell, but Kono is looking to value-added products to diversify and grow the market.

Value-added products are welcome among retailers like K-VA-T Food Stores, which operates 94 Food City grocery stores in Kentucky, western Virginia and Tennessee, landlocked areas where seafood sales are growing.

Mussels are an exotic in those markets, says Valerie Matney, K-VA-T's seafood buyer. The chain sells about 50 2-pound boxes per week of frozen New Zealand mussels for $6 to $7. (That's an average of about one pound per store per week.)

"[Customers] don't want to pay that price for something they're not sure how to handle," says Matney. "I think people would be more apt to try [value-added products]."

PEI blues drive the market

Blue mussels ( Mytilus edulis ), farm-raised on Prince Edward Island, are still the mainstay of the blue mussel market, which also includes farmed and wild blues harvested in Maine and specialty blues farmed in the Pacific Northwest.

Canada shipped about 13.5 million pounds of blue mussels to the U.S. market through August 2006, primarily fresh, farmed mussels. U.S. imports of Canadian mussels in 2005 made up 99 percent of live, farmed imports, according to import data from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In Atlantic Canada, blue mussels are grown on ropes suspended in the water column from lobster buoys. In 2005, PEI mussel farms harvested 35.3 million pounds, a slight downturn from the 37 million pounds harvested in 2004. All signs point to stable production for 2006 and 2007.

"This year has been an excellent growing year," says Stewart. "There are all kinds of beautiful seed available, and meats were bigger this summer than we've seen in a few years."

Water temperatures have been just right: not too cold last winter, when mussel growth usually slows, and not too warm in summer, says Stewart, which is great news for future supply.

Chile contributes a tiny but growing portion to the import picture. Chilean imports of frozen mussels through August 2006 were nearly 2 million pounds, 34 percent ahead of the same period in 2005. The Chilean supply is year-round and can expand, says Davis of PanaPesca.

"As growth continues, governments are setting aside areas for additional farming," he adds.

Demand is also expanding in the niche market for Mediterranean mussels ( Mytilus galloprovincialis ). For the last five years or so, demand for the specialty mussel, farm-raised at Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Wash., has outstripped production, says Tom Bet­tinger, director of international sales. He estimates Taylor's weekly harvest at about 35,000 pounds and weekly demand at about 50,000 pounds. Wholesale prices this year averaged about $1.70 per pound compared to about $1.50 per pound last year, says Bettinger.

Taylor's production of Mediter­raneans for 2006-07 will be around 1.4 million pounds and 2.2 million pounds in 2008. To increase production, the company last year expanded into British Columbia farms and began growing Mediterranean mussels as well as the Mytilus edulis species. Taylor's B.C. production, 75 percent Mediterranean and 25 percent blue mussels, is expected to reach 600,000 pounds next year then double annually for the next few years.

In addition to Washington's production, Maine contributes about 3 million pounds to the domestic mussel supply.

Growers raise mussels on ropes suspended from rafts or set bottom seed. Fishermen drag both wild mussels and the mature mussels from seeded beds, landing about 3.4 million pounds of mussels in 2005.

The raft-grown mussels, what Great Eastern Mussel Farms calls "choice" product, wholesales to white-tablecloth restaurants for $1.25 to $1.40, f.o.b. Boston, says Davison.

Mussels grown from seed that's spread along the bottom wholesale for 90 cents to $1.10 per pound. Bottom-grown and wild-harvested product are both purged in tanks to remove grit.

Wild mussels, slow growers that can take seven to 12 years to reach 2 1⁄2 inches and live to about 12 years, can be inconsistent with imperfect shells and, if older, can contain pearls. Harvesting from intertidal beds of older, wild mussels has led to quality problems in the last couple of years for Maine's wild mussels, says Davison, who adds that in late 2006 the product quality of Maine's wild mussels 

Mussel buyers should closely watch the U.S. dollar against the Canadian dollar, as its drop in value has been the biggest factor on mussel prices. Expect a stable market as farmers, especially in PEI and Chile, can increase supply in line with demand increases.

Counting on Americans to gulp even half as many mussels as Europeans is probably a gamble - at least for now.

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