Growing UK market for crab

Crab is growing in popularity in the U.K. retail market, according to Nielsen Scantrack data prepared for Seafish. Total sales to the end of March 2014 rose by 11.1 percent to GBP 19.2 million (USD 32.2 million, EUR 23.8 million), fresh sales by 17.5 percent to GBP 13.8 million (USD 23.1 million, EUR 17.1 million), and frozen by 2.4 percent to GBP 140,000 (USD 234,554/EUR 173,191). Ambient sales dipped slightly by 2.5 percent to GBP 5.3 million (USD 8.9 million, EUR 6.6 million). The total market volume increased 7.1 percent to 1057 metric tons (MT).

One of the processors taking advantage of this is Burgons of Eyemouth, based in Scottish Border country, which has just celebrated 100 years in the seafood business. Taken over two years ago by the Blue Sea Food Company, the business is going from strength to strength.

“Burgons is now concentrating on what it knows best, which is crab, and our mission is to increase throughput, improve yields, and produce a better quality product for a wider customer base,” said Claire Duff, sales manager.

The company sells crab including whole, dressed, whole or “snap and eat” claws, claw and leg meat, fine or chunky white meat, purse meat, blown or extracted toe meat, chunky leg meat, crab bakes, cakes and pate. “Basically, we can produce whatever the customer wants,” explained Duff.

“Sustainability comes as standard, with all crab caught using creels and pots,” she said. “This allows the fishermen to return undersized, damaged, recently moulted or egg-bearing crabs to the sea to recover, grow and breed again. We hold Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody [certification] for Shetland Crab, and as part of our contribution to securing the long term sustainability of the U.K. crab fishery, we encourage fishermen to return small crabs to the sea, even if they do meet the legal minimum landing size.”

Last year, Burgons bought in 1200 MT of brown crab, sourcing from all over Scotland and the north of England. 

The company supplies to the foodservice market, direct to U.K. retailers and to other suppliers who further process for retail sale. Burgons also has a strong market in French freezer centers and wholesalers, which currently account for around one quarter of all sales. Exports are also growing to China, the Middle East, Spain and Portugal, and Duff was pleased to receive a steady stream of enquiries at Seafood Expo Global in Brussels in May.

Together with Blue Sea Food Company, which processes Devon crab in the south of England, the group is Europe’s largest supplier of crab meat to the wholesale sector. More than 90 percent of the business is frozen, with the remainder accounted for by production of fresh, pasteurized products.

Crab is delivered to the processing unit daily, fresh from the boats, then quality checked and graded, before removal to a chilled holding to wait processing. Factory Manager Danny Dancaster explained that the main season runs from May to August for processed crab and from September to December for whole crab. 

“We are aiming for 500 MT of whole frozen crab this season, up from 300 tonnes the previous year,” he said.  
Before cooking, crab are expertly killed using a precisely applied spike.  “The process is swift and clean, and results in a higher quality end product,” said Dancaster. 

Crab are placed in metal baskets for cooking in a continuous flow boiler, which has the capacity to process 500-600 kilos of whole crabs per hour and 1,000-1,200 kilos when doing sections. Once cooked, they are thoroughly rinsed to remove any white protein on the shells, and quickly chilled to the required temperature. 

“We process up to 75 MT per week, but that can rise to 85-90 MT in peak season, and every batch is fully traceable,” said Dancaster.  To achieve their targets, the BRC level 6-accredited factory operates two shifts per day with up to 100 staff employed, with a complete clean down every night.  

Burgons operates a range of high-tech extraction machinery to separate leg and purse meat from shell, and also relies on expert, nimble-fingered hand-pickers to obtain the highest quality white meat and prepare the dressed crab. ‘Snap and eat’ claws are also hand cut using a Diamond edge blade.  

Every last bit of the animal is used, and there is very little to send to landfill. “We are also working on a project to make better use of the shell, which will hopefully see it turned into fertilizer for farmers to use,” said Dancaster.

Products are all hand packed chilled or frozen, with a range of clear plastic pots of meat for retail sale which can either be standard fresh / frozen or steam pasteurized, or  vacuum packs of meat for wholesale which are water pasteurized.

“We are really pleased that crab sales are steadily increasing, and I think that is partly because people are increasingly aware of the health benefits of eating seafood. Crab is low in fat, high in protein and rich in vitamins and Omega 3, and the range of innovative products now being produced in the UK means it is appealing to more and more people, which can only be good for business,” said Duff.


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