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Species Focus - Tilapia

Sales of this popular whitefish just keep growing in both retail and foodservice

By Rick Ramseyer
October 01, 2006

Ten years ago, tilapia accounted for around 10 percent of the business at Western Edge Seafood in Wash­ington, Pa. Now the farm-raised fish represents at least half - maybe even 60 percent - of the company's sales.

"We took a stand," says John Victoria, CEO of Western Edge, which sources frozen tilapia from a partner on Hainan Island off China's southern coast. "We knew tilapia was going to be one of the species of the future: farm-raised, mild taste, good price and plenty of production. And it panned out for us."

It also panned out for Tropical Aquaculture Products in Rutland, Vt., which late this summer was selling about 375,000 pounds of fresh tilapia fillets a week, with projections to reach 450,000 pounds weekly by year's end.

That translates to imports of up to 24 million pounds from Tropical Aquaculture's owners in Ecuador, Colo­mbia and Costa Rica, which collectively operate 11,000 or so acres of tilapia farms.

"The growth curve continues to increase," says John Schramm, president of Tropical Aqua­culture.

He notes that both retail and foodservice business, which includes supplying ti­lapia to Dar­den Res­taurants in Orlando, Fla., is growing at a 15 percent to 20 percent clip annually.

Tropical Aquaculture and Western Edge are just two examples of seafood stakeholders benefiting from the strong demand for tilapia, a warmwater species that's considered an ideal choice for picky American consumers who like its slightly sweet, non-fishy flavor.

Tilapia's burgeoning popularity is reflected by its presence on menus of independent restaurants across the country, as well as at major casual-dining chains, including Applebee's, T.G.I. Friday's, Red Lobster and Olive Garden, plus family-dining giant Denny's. Tilapia also is widely available at supermarkets, club stores and specialty grocers and over the Internet.

U.S. per-capita consumption of tilapia ( Tilapia spp .), whose origin has been traced to the Nile River in Africa, now stands at 1 pound. By year's end, tilapia is expected to bump catfish out of its spot as the nation's fifth-most-popular seafood, according to Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor and aquaculture expert at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

For 2006, U.S. tilapia consumption, in live weight, is on pace to top 580 million pounds, a dramatic rise from around 504 million pounds last year and 412 million pounds in 2004, Fitzsimmons reports.

 

Imports surge

It only takes a glance at foreign-trade statistics to see tilapia's might in the U.S. market. From January through June, U.S. imports of frozen and fresh tilapia, including whole fish, totaled 163 million pounds, a more than 25 percent increase from the 129.8 million pounds imported in 2005, reports the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The vast majority of tilapia is from overseas; annual U.S. production accounts for only 20 million pounds. The lion's share of frozen fillets stems from China (Indonesia is a distant second), and the bulk of fresh fillets come from Central and South America.

U.S. imports of frozen fillets from China, for example, neared 61.7 million pounds from January through June, up from 37.1 million pounds for the same period in 2005.

Imports of fresh fillets from Ecua­dor, the region's top cultivator of U.S.-bound product, surpassed 12 million pounds in the first six months of 2006, compared with 11.9 million pounds a year ago. (The two other leading fresh-fillet exporters are Honduras and Costa Rica, respectively.)

 

China's muscle

China's tilapia production this year is forecasted at 2.4 billion pounds, up 10 percent over 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service. And exports - 70 percent of which are destined for the United States - were projected to jump 20 percent.

Newport International in St. Peters­burg, Fla., which sources frozen fillets from China, has seen the benefits firsthand.

"Crabmeat is our No. 1 item, but tilapia is our highest-growing category," says Troy Turkin, executive VP of sales and marketing at Newport. "It's definitely our focus for increasing business."

Newport, of course, is among a large group of importers that are seeing strong tilapia sales.

Still, imports in recent months have been hampered by concerns that some aquaculture facilities in China were using malachite green, a topical fungicide that has been banned for use on food in the United States and Canada since the early 1990s.

Those concerns led to heightened inspections by Chinese authorities, resulting in shipment delays.

"It used to take approximately six weeks from order to get [product] to the United States," says Victoria of Western Edge, which sources fillets for restaurants, as well as retail chains like Giant Eagle, Big Y and Bi-Lo.

"Now it's taking from eight to 10 weeks."

Charles Yi, sales director for O Fine Foods in Arcadia, Calif., which provides frozen, Chinese tilapia to the North American market, says shipments have been further delayed by the requirement for tilapia farmers to register with the CIQ, the Chinese equivalent of the USDA.

"There's a lot of farms that didn't register with CIQ, 
so they can't export product," Yi says.

O Fine Foods recently focused its sales efforts on catfish, resulting in a substantial drop in the company's tilapia sales, but will nonetheless handle about 5.8 million pounds of tilapia this year, Yi says.

Meanwhile, Newport Inter­national, like most other players, is taking the delays in stride.

"If you manage your inventories properly," Turkin says, "it doesn't have to have a negative impact."

Despite the snags, prices have remained relatively stable, with suppliers reporting a range of $3.10 to $3.75 per pound for fresh fillets from Central and South America in late August, compared with around $1.55 to $2.10 per pound for frozen fillets from China, according to Urner Barry in Toms River, N.J.

 

Fresh partners

In Central and South Amer­ica, a shortage of fresh fillets last fall and into the Lenten season - stemming in large part from a lack of rain in Ecuador and a subsequent drop in production - didn't just impact supply. But it was among the factors that led two producers of fresh tilapia fillets to join forces.

Enaca USA in Medley, Fla., and Mountain Stream Tilapia in Miami merged last April and now hold about 22 percent of the fresh-fillet market under a new name: Aquamericas.

"After Lent last year was kind of a tough period for all of us in the industry, so we just felt as a combined company that we could avoid those kind of things in the future and gain efficiencies," says Jim Nunneley, managing director of Aquamericas in Miami.

"And it allows us flexibility for approaching some larger customers."

The deal, described as a 50-50 partnership, allowed the companies to blend some operations, exemplified by Moun­tain Stream's move into Enaca's distribution facility.

For now, Aquamericas will continue to use the Rio Mar and Mountain Stream brands, but "there are discussions as to how we'll proceed in the future," Nunneley says.

Production has returned to normal in Ecua­dor and remains strong at the company's other farms in El Salvador, Honduras and Belize, says Nunneley, who expects growth this year of up to 20 percent.

"We have some additional production capability in Hon­duras that's coming on now," he adds, "and we have a joint-venture project we're going to open up [in 2007]."

 

Fresh vs. frozen

Whether frozen or fresh, tilapia has plenty of fans in both foodservice and retail camps.

Fresh tilapia from South America accounts for two of the six varieties of value-added fillets offered at Bloom, a fresh-focused supermarket concept that has about a dozen locations in the Carolinas and in the Wash­ington, D.C., area.

A recent special featured Tortilla Crusted Tilapia and Coconut Crusted Tilapia for $2.29 each, billed as a 70-cent savings.

"Tilapia sells well in all Bloom markets and is ranked third or fourth behind our No. 1 seller, which is salmon," Karen Peter­son, a spokesperson for Bloom's corporate parent, Food Lion, stated via e-mail from Salisbury, N.C.

Farther up the East Coast, fresh fillets from Ecuador last month were priced at $5.99 a pound at the Hannaford store in Yarmouth, Maine.

Plenty of restaurants also go with fresh product.

The Bistrot Margot in Chi­cago uses about 15 pounds of fresh, 7- to 9-ounce tilapia fillets each weekday and 20 pounds per day on weekends.

The signature Tilapia Aux Noix, priced at $17.95 for dinner and $14.95 for lunch, consists of roasted tilapia, asparagus, beets and walnuts flavored with a balsamic brown-butter sauce.

"It's a colorful, tasty dish and one of our biggest sellers," says Carlos Gaytan, Bistrot Margot's chef de cuisine.

Conversely, frozen tilapia is a hit at Louie LeDeaux Seafood Kitchen in San Antonio.

"We started offering tilapia within the last eight months or so, and it's been growing every single week," says co-owner Matt Dimando.

The restaurant uses 15 to 17 cases a week of frozen, 5- to 7-ounce tilapia fillets from Asia. The fish is offered grilled, blackened or fried, as well as catahula-style - topped with étouffée sauce - and served with rice for $11.95.

"We sell probably 30 cases of catfish a week, and we thought tilapia would be a nice addition for us," Dimando says. "It's a clean, white, non-fishy type fish."

Another frozen player is Icelandic USA in Newport News, Va., which in July launched Currents, a line of fillets that includes 4-ounce portions of ready-to-heat tilapia. Developed by Hilmar Jónsson, Icelandic's corporate chef, the line targets foodservice operators.

And Aquamericas, despite its fresh focus, is now offering "premium frozen product, aimed at the casual-dining segment," says Nunneley, declining to be more specific.

New products also are coming online in retail settings. Newport International - a force in foodservice as one of the tilapia suppliers for T.G.I. Friday's - recently introduced a 1-pound retail pack of tilapia under the Jack's Catch brand that is priced anywhere from $2.99 to $3.99.

"It's UPC coded in a resealable bag," Turkin says. "We're marketing more heavily now for the supermarket trade."

Internet outlets offer frozen choices as well. In early September, Nebraska-based Om­a­ha Steaks was selling four frozen, 6-ounce lemon-peppered tilapia fillets for $19.99, touted as a $10 savings.

Tilapia, it seems, continues its march into the mainstream. But it remains unclear whether the sky's the limit.

"I see more people getting into the business and the volume increasing," says Turkin, echoing comments from his competitors. "Will it become the next salmon - who knows?"

 

Contributing Editor Rick Ram­seyer lives in Cumberland, Maine

 

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