Top shellers

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Seafood

Shellfish have historically been regarded as mysterious creatures, to be eaten with caution. But, as Lynda Searby finds out, ready-to-eat products are convincing consumers that shellfish is convenient, safe and in vogue.

With chilled shellfish sales climbing at over six times the rate of frozen, it's logical that most new product developments are destined for the chiller cabinet rather than the freezer. Latest figures from TNS value the chilled shellfish market at £186m and growing by 20% year-on-year. Prawns -- the largest market segment -- are now worth £133m and are forging ahead of the rest of the category at an impressive 29% growth rate.

The Seafood Company is one producer that has recognised the potential of chilled prawns. Since June, the company has been supplying Marks & Spencer with Madagascan jumbo tiger prawns marketed under the retailer's own brand. At £7.99 for six prawns, you'd think that it would price itself out of the market, but according to Allen Townsend, group sales and marketing director of The Seafood Company, the product is selling. "The market is now big enough to segment a top tier and if you get the right product with the right presentation, consumers will buy it," he says.

But there must be something really special about Madagascan prawns to justify such a lofty price point. Townsend reckons there is. "Madagascan prawns are the best tasting warm water prawns in the world. Their texture, flavour and eating quality is far superior to any other prawn you'll ever try."

The Seafood Company adopts a strategy of concentrating on the provenance of its products. "Instead of selling a dressed crab or a whole prawn, retailers are selling Cromer crab or a Honduran prawn. Provenance is selling and it adds to the marketing appeal of a product," says Townsend.

The origin of its Western Rock Lobster -- a crayfish from the Western Coast of Australia, which is being sold on Waitrose's fish counter -- is a major selling point.

Provenance is also important for molluscs sourced closer to home, such as Colchester Oysters, supplied by Colchester Oyster Fisheries, which the Italian Slow Food Movement have just added to its 'Arc of Taste'. But these oysters also possess a taste quite different to those from elsewhere, such as Whitstable in Kent, being described as having a succulent, firm texture, fleshy, but not fat -- almost meaty.

It's not just where shellfish is sourced, it's also how. Environmental considerations are taking on added importance as producers seek out more exotic species. The Seafood Company uses only suppliers that apply sound environmental, ethical and labour practices. "If we're buying products from developing countries, we have a responsibility to make sure we source sustainably."

Western Rock Lobster comes from the first fishery in the world to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for its crustaceous output. MSC certification assesses how well a fishery is managed and how well it guards against environmental damage such as by-catch of non-target species. MSC accreditation of Western Rock Lobster also helped The Seafood Company negotiate the first ever preferential duty rate -- down to six per cent from 12.5%.

The company recently added a 'responsible sourcing' statement to its retail prawn products under the Anchor Seafoods brand. Townsend says this is more for the benefit of retail customers and to deflect unwanted attention from pressure groups than to use as a marketing tool for consumers. "When we're bagging products with our customers' names on, they have to be totally confident that we're doing everything correctly. Consumers on the whole aren't really aware of what is good or bad in terms of sourcing shrimp."

But Ken Sutherland, md of The Orkney Herring Company, thinks consumers probably are aware of environmental concerns, it's just they choose to ignore them. "People do know about environmental issues, but only a small percentage actually lets that influence their buying habits. Ultimately, consumers want cheap food and if it tastes alright, they'll buy it anyway."

Lyons Seafoods, on the other hand, is confident that consumers are discerning enough to buy organic. Since October, the first organic chilled tail-on king prawns have been on-shelf in Sainsbury at an rsp of £3.99. Lyons is part of the Ethical Trading Initiative and is sourcing the prawns from an organically-approved supplier in South America, which ensures the land and habitation are protected.

As well as sustainable sourcing, contamination continues to be a major issue for the shellfish industry. Just weeks ago, the Food Standards Agency warned that thousands of tonnes of British shellfish could be banned under new international safety limits for radioactivity in food. It claimed lobsters, cockles and scallops from the north west of England and the south west of Scotland are so contaminated with plutonium from Sellafield in Cumbria that they will breach limits due to be introduced by the United Nations in 2005.

In recent years, the industry has been dogged by media attention around nitrofurans -- a substance which was banned for use in food production by European countries in the mid-1990s due to its carcinogenic effects, but is still used in some areas of south east Asia. Last year Lyons invested £300,000 in testing equipment, which it uses to check every single batch for nitrofurans.

There clearly are concerns around contaminated seafood. After all, shellfish are filter feeders and do accumulate toxins faster than most other animals. But monitoring standards today are extremely stringent.

And it seems many consumers are wary of eating shellfish in case they become ill, according to independent research into consumer perceptions of seafood commissioned by Seafish -- the Sea Fish Industry Authority. While the research found that consumers associate shellfish with positive attributes such as 'juicy', 'delicate', 'subtle flavour', there are still some negatives like 'risky' and 'expensive'.

Stephen Kavanagh, md of Irish producer Fish out of Water, agrees that there is still an association of shellfish with stomach upsets. "There are people who go out at night and eat two oysters and if they've got any gastrointestinal problems the next day, the oysters are to blame. It's nothing to do with the two bottles of wine they drank."

He also concedes that the perception of shellfish as expensive can be a barrier to consumer acceptance. But as he points out: "There is no cheap way to smoke an oyster."

Fish out of Water employs traditional methods to produce its smoked oysters, mussels and scallops, using a blend of apple, alder and oak. Its smokehouse is a converted 19th century cottage. Kavanagh believes there is a growing proportion of food connoisseurs who care enough about food and how it is produced to pay for and appreciate the work that has gone into an artisanal product.

'Difficult' and 'fiddly' were cited in the Seafish research as further obstacles to eating shellfish. In September, Fish out of Water launched a range of smoked shellfish pâtés to provide consumers with a more user-friendly product. The pâté is sold via independent outlets as well as Selfridges and Harrods and Superquinn in Ireland.

"One of the problems with just selling our original range of smoked shellfish was that people assumed that, because it was quite a specialised product, they had to put it into extravagant recipes. We moved into pâté because you don't have to educate people on how to eat it -- they just spread it on a cracker or serve it as a canapé," says Kavanagh.

Ken Sutherland of The Orkney Herring Company also believes that producers have to make shellfish easy to eat and prepare. "Britain's the opposite to the rest of Europe in that respect," he says. "On the continent they like to break things open and get stuck into a table full of shellfish."

Convenience was a key driver behind the development of Orkney Herring's Crayfish Tails in a Moroccan Sauce. The product, which scooped gold in the seafood category at this year's Great Taste Awards, is based on Ras el Hanout, a traditional Moroccan spice mix containing lavender and paprika. It is available in retail packs of 180g and can be warmed and eaten with couscous or rice. "Anything to do with crayfish will sell," says Sutherland.

Lyons has also introduced a 200g pack of cooked crayfish into Sainsbury this summer, which it says is performing well.

Accessible, attractive, chilled products seem to be going some way to dispelling consumer preconceptions. It just remains to be seen what exotic species of shellfish will be next on the menu.FM

Related topics: NPD

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