By Mark Godfrey, Contributing Editor reporting from Beijing, China
Published on Thursday, October 10, 2013
Getting China’s fine diners to embrace caviar may be logical given the growth of the country’s economy and wealthy individuals. That’s the view of leading exporters of Iranian and U.S. caviar.
“I do not believe it would be a big challenge to introduce and sell caviar in China,” said SMH Bozorgnia, managing director of caviar exporter Caspian Trading Co. “This is especially true in today’s interconnected world. The product is already well known worldwide and it will not be hard to market and sell it there.”
Focused on Iranian caviar, Bozorgnia believes the biggest challenge in growing sales in China may be price, particularly given the crackdown on luxury state dining in China — but also availability.
“It is becoming more and more difficult to obtain quality caviar, particularly from the Caspian Sea. Due to overfishing and pollution the fish is in rather short supply. As a result, quality caviar cannot be produced in sufficient quantities to meet existing demand, thus the explanation for its high price. The final challenge is the present corruption campaign in China. As a luxury product, caviar might be seen as decadent good, the consumption of which might be discouraged.”
American caviar producers seeking sales in China include Michigan City-based Collins Caviar. Company CEO Rachel Collins said the firm got a “tremendously positive reaction” at the recent Seafood Asia Expo in Hong Kong for its American Golden Whitefish caviar line. Having grown sales in Australia, Collins has a “strong sense” that Hong Kong/Asia “may indeed become our largest market in the near future.”
Customers in Hong Kong were drawn by the firm’s flavor-infused and smoked caviars, “…but also at the price point…like many items in the high-end category, clients are looking for something in that same ‘neck of the woods,’ yet not a cheap imitation. So we are able to offer a species which is almost completely unknown in the Hong Kong and Asian market, which is actually quite different from sturgeon caviars, and not in any way trying to compete with them.”
Collins believes the sustainability of her product is another advantage in keeping pricing stable for potential Asian buyers: she points out that while there is “almost no allocation anymore of wild-caught Caspian Sea catch” in the U.S., Hackleback and Paddlefish have been on the (CITES) Appendix 2 for years. “…fisheries are very well managed, so supply seems stable.” This has also ensured pricing of American caviar pricing has also been relatively stable over the last few years. “Fortunately for me focusing on Whitefish for Austral-Asia, it is a highly sustainable Great Lakes fishery.”
Bozorgnia, whose biggest caviar market is Europe and the Middle East, noted there were some exhibitors of Iranian and Chinese caviar at the recent Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong.
“I did manage to meet a number of firms which I believe could have good potential for future sale of all of our seafood products including caviar. We are looking to expand our caviar marketing and sales initially in Hong Kong and later to larger cities in China such as Shanghai. We believe it is important to start sales in cities that have a larger international population.”
A three-decades veteran of the caviar trade, Collins notes that Hong Kong and Asia have a “similar profile” to the U.S. in how and where caviar is sold. “It is primarily an F&B item, with good sales all year round, and spikes around major holidays. In the U.S. the 4th quarter is traditionally the best in volume of sales. In the retail sector, again, fourth quarter is very strong, particularly mail-order.”
Bozorgnia is looking primarily to the retail market in China.
“We believe the nature of our product is such that it has to start with that market and from there expand to food and beverage and institutional sales. We managed to contact some retail customers in Hong Kong that we had known before the show. They have a number of gourmet food shops in Hong Kong that will be a good platform for initiating the marketing and sale of caviar. The shops can also be an appropriate place for sampling, distribution of marketing materials, as well educating customer on the use and consumption of caviar.” About 60 percent of his firm’s product is currently sold in Asia. “But a very small percentage of that is caviar.”
China now accounts for 20 percent of world caviar output, according to the China Daily newspaper that claimed Chinese caviar is being served in the first-class cabins of international airlines and sold under the French-based Petrossian label. Collins said the Chinese farm-raised Kaluga and others she tasted have been “very good indeed… but it is an apples to oranges comparison. In fact, I really prefer not to compare the two.” Collins explains that stugreon caviar (Huso daricus, Huso huso, Guilderstaadi, or even Schaphyrynchus species) are completely different than American Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis). “So we prefer to stand on our own merit, and encourage as much tasting as possible…”
While Chinese caviar producers are claiming they’re producing a high quality product with market share in the Middle East, Europe and Russia, Bozorgnia believes domestic product has a way to go. “Our caviar is from the Caspian Sea. The Chinese caviar is far inferior to either Russian or Iranian caviar of Caspian Sea origin. Not only the species of Chinese sturgeon is different, but most are farm raised, and the quality of processing and salting used in Chinese caviar is not as good as the either Russian or Iranian caviar of Caspian Sea.”
Caviar may not be particularly traditional to Chinese or Cantonese cuisine, but Collins believes the Hong Kong palate is a very refined one… “we found that caviar is in high demand, and very fondly thought of. The only thing we did need to spend a little extra time explaining and educating about was the brand new specie they were experiencing. So, while it’s not ‘traditional’ per se, it is well known and well loved.”
The most ambitious of the Chinese caviar farmers, Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Co., recently opened a new processing factory in Quzhou on the banks of the Yangtze River in Zhejiang province. At full capacity the plant will produce 35 tons of caviar annually. The firm sells three kinds of caviar: Siberian sturgeon caviar, USD 584 (EUR 432) per kilogram, as well as Amur Sturgeon caviar that it sells for USD 875 (EUR 647) per kilogram. Yunnan Amuer Sturgeon Aquaculture, based in southwesterly province of Yunnan, in 2011 announced a CNY 100 million (USD 16, EUR 12) investment from Dalian Zhangzidao Fishery Group Co, giving the listed Dalian aquaculture firm a 20 percent stake in Yunnan Amuer Sturgeon.