« October 2006 Table of Contents
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
"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
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,
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
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,
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 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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.,
A recent special featured Tortilla Crusted Tilapia and
Coconut Crusted Tilapia for $2.29 each, billed as a 70-cent
"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
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
"It's a colorful, tasty dish and one of our biggest
sellers," says Carlos Gaytan, Bistrot Margot's chef de
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
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
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,