Taking tilapia mainstream in the UK
By Nicki Holmyard, SeafoodSource contributing editor
31 January, 2012
In many markets, tilapia is a heavy hitter. In the U.S. market, for example, it’s the fourth most consumed seafood item, trailing only shrimp, canned tuna and salmon. But, in the UK market, the species doesn’t even break the top 30.
New England Seafood is out to change that. The UK-based company is working to import more tilapia from Zimbabwe while teaming up with Waitrose and Lake Harvest Aquaculture to improve tilapia-farming practices in the landlocked African country. SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Nicki Holmyard recently caught up with to James Robinson, the company’s commercial director, to learn more about the company, its plans to increase tilapia sales in the UK and the importance of sustainable seafood.
Holmyard: What does New England specialize in?
Robinson: New England Seafood is a major supplier of fresh and frozen premium sustainable seafood in the UK and is one of the largest importers of fresh tuna. We sell to the leading supermarkets, as well as to smaller retail outlets, restaurant chains, foodservice markets and wholesale sectors nationwide. We source more than 30 species of wild and farmed seafood from 40-plus countries worldwide and are passionate about responsible sourcing.
What is your company philosophy?
Our company and all of the people who work with it depend on fish, which is one of the world’s last natural resources. We actively seek to be sustainable in all we do. Some years ago, New England created a role specifically around sustainability, and as a business we work closely with industry-led groups, customers, NGOs and government bodies to help develop policies and solutions that enhance sustainability.
Sustainability is not only about fish; it’s about sustaining ecosystems and livelihoods as well. Through close-working partnerships with our suppliers, we promote environmentally friendly practices and also ensure that fishing communities and local businesses maintain and grow their market for the sustainable fish they supply.
Have your customers become more concerned with sustainability in the past few years?
Certainly, both retailers and consumers have very high and increasing expectations about sustainability. Consumers expect their retailers to source only sustainable fish, and the retailers look to suppliers like New England Seafood to research and source the most sustainable sources.
How long have you been selling tilapia, and what is behind the increase in trade?
New England Seafood has been selling tilapia farmed by Lake Harvest Aquaculture in Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe, for the past 10 years. We have developed an excellent working relationship with the company and we’re keen to expand the UK market for this product.
Our tilapia also has a story, in that every worker on the farm and factory in Africa financially supports around 20 other people in their extended family. In addition, Lake Harvest supports the local community with investment in education and healthcare. This fish is a farmed product whose diet is 95 percent vegetarian and which grows quickly in its indigenous environment in the warm waters of Africa. We currently fly it in fresh but are developing a complementary high-quality frozen route to market. This is being done as part of a major Department for International Development-funded project we are undertaking with Waitrose to improve environmental and fish welfare standards, quality assurance, freezing, handling methods and logistics.
What are you doing to increase your tilapia sales?
As part of the project we are preparing a major marketing campaign with Waitrose, which should help to increase species awareness and loyalty. Tilapia may only be No. 31 in the UK fish charts at present (compared to No. 4 in the U.S.) but sales are already growing fast. Consumers like its simple white, flaky texture and its plain taste, which absorbs all types of flavors really well.
We currently supply skinless, boneless fillets on counters and in plain and value-added pre-pack formats in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Sales have doubled on counters in the past two years, mainly because this is where the most confident fish consumers tend to shop, and this group is the first to embrace new species.
The key to transforming a new species’ sales is to invest and persevere and to let consumers see it in many different environments. We are keen for tilapia to emerge on restaurant menus and to be found across different parts of the store — pre-pack, counters, frozen and added-value. In particular, good value and education are key to building consumer confidence in the early stages. We offer the first, and are working hard on the latter.
31 January, 2012