For mussels, potential still untapped

Editor’s note: In the first of a two-part look at the global mussel market, Stephen Cameron, managing director of the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group, tackles the development of mussel markets in the United Kingdom. In part two, Chile’s growing importance as a mussel supplier to Europe will be explored. 

Presenting at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain’s annual conference in London at the end of May, Stephen Cameron, managing director of the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group (SSMG), explained that mussels are rapidly gaining in popularity with consumers as a healthy, convenient, tasty product.

In UK retail market, 141,500 tons of fresh finfish and shellfish are sold per year, worth GBP 1.68 billion. Mussels make up just under 3 percent of the total, at around 4,000 tons worth GBP 21 million; mussels are ranked 11th in value and eighth in volume.

All major UK retailers now sell mussels in one form or another, and pre-packed value-added mussels have grown significantly in importance in the past few years. “Retail sales now account for 42 percent of all mussel purchases, wholesale for 32 percent and foodservice for 26 percent, whereas when our cooperative was set up 20 years ago sales were entirely wholesale,” said Cameron.

According to Nielsen data, through the end of April retail sales of cooked in-sauce mussels have increased by around 16 percent year-on-year for the past few years, while retail sales of live mussels have grown by around 20 percent. These figures relate to two growing and diverging consumer trends — one for added value and convenience and the other for increased home cooking using fresh ingredients.    

Cameron explained that mussels in sauces, including white wine, garlic butter and Provençal, make up the greatest volume of consumer retail purchases at 61 percent, way ahead of fresh mussels at 16 percent. Modified Atmosphere Packs (MAP) of fresh live mussels are popular in Europe but are only just beginning to get a toehold in the UK (4 percent). They are, however, a shopper-friendly way of buying fresh mussels, as they don’t drip and have an extended shelf-life, so we may well see more of this packaging form in the future.  

Chilled, pre-packed mussel meats, which tend to be used as a pizza topper or salad ingredient, are largely supplied by Chile and Denmark, and account for 16 percent of the retail market.    

Research by Nielsen on the demographic of seafood sales shows that mussels are bought in general by older, more affluent consumers, and attracting younger people with new flavor combinations is something SSMG is looking at. “We are about to move into new premises, which will give us space to develop a whole range of exciting new ideas,” said Cameron.  

Live mussels are the mainstay of the wholesale and foodservice markets, although Cameron explained that cooked mussels are becoming more important for restaurant chains such as Wetherspoon, Café Rouge and Whitbread pubs. “Some take product ready-cooked in sauce, while others prefer a plain cooked mussel to which they can add their own flavors,” he said.    

Aside from price promotions, Cameron explained that endorsement by celebrity chefs has the biggest influence on sales. “We saw this in a major way at the end of 2010, when Jamie Oliver declared that ‘Mussels are the future. They’re absolutely gorgeous, cheap, exciting and so quick to cook!’ Sales of fresh mussels rose by 24 percent and stayed up until our main season ended. When sales resumed, they were 11 percent higher than anticipated, showing that the ‘Jamie’ effect was still strong,” he said.   

SSMG has been developing its value-added mussel products, including in-sauce packs and chowders, to meet current market trends. According to Kantar figures, economy-own label sales in the UK have grown significantly in the past four years, but so have sales of premium foods, driven by promotions such as Marks & Spencer’s “Dine in for £10” range, which includes a main course, side dish and desert for two, plus a bottle of wine. Other major retailers offer similar promotions, and seafood is generally included as one of the dishes.

“Our product innovation needs to recognise these trends if we are to attract new and retain current customers, so it is something we are paying particular attention to as we develop plans for the future,” said Cameron.


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