Times are changing for mussels

Published on
June 24, 2013

Mussels were in the news recently, when Stephen Cameron, managing director of the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group (SSMG), won the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Industry’ award at the Crown Estate Scottish Marine Aquaculture Awards 2013.  The Crown Estate owns foreshore and seabed throughout the UK and leases more than 850 sites for salmon, trout, halibut, mussel and oyster production.    ?

As a cooperative of mussel and oyster farmers, SSMG is one of the UK’s leading seafood companies and has played an important part in developing the Scottish farmed shellfish sector.   

In the five years Cameron has been at the helm, the turnover and volume sales of members’ mussels have increased significantly, resulting in a move last year to a new state-of-the-art facility near Glasgow, where production of value added products is being stepped up.   

A brief look at the U.K. mussel supply situation shows that in European terms, the country is a medium sized producer that exports the majority of its production. Consumption is low compared to many other European countries, but is growing steadily, mostly through the consumption of prepared meals.

The majority of the annual 30,000 metric ton (MT) production comes from aquaculture, with only a small proportion still coming from wild fisheries. 22,000 MT are cultivated on the seabed, and the remainder on ropes, particularly in Scotland.

The majority of seabed cultivated mussels are exported to the Netherlands for further processing, although this situation may change in the near future as processing facilities are planned for North Wales, which is the main production area.

Rope grown mussels are mostly sold as a fresh, live product to local markets, and the bulk of Scottish production is marketed by SSMG, which distributes live mussels throughout the U.K. and processes for many multiple retailers and foodservice companies.  

The majority of Scottish rope grown mussels are Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Friend of the Sea (FOS) certified, while the North Wales production is MSC certification, which is fast becoming a market requirement of the Dutch processors.

Around 65 percent of U.K. production is exported live for further processing, but the U.K. also imports ready-to-eat processed mussel products from other EU countries, Chile and New Zealand. Total mussel imports were 3,300 MT in 2012.  

Frozen mussels meats, marinated and pickled meats and pre-cooked dishes of mussels in sauce tend to come from Chile, Denmark and Ireland, while small quantities of frozen half shell mussels are imported from New Zealand. Live mussels are also occasionally imported from Holland.

Retail accounts for slightly less than half of all mussel sales in the U.K. with the major multiple retailers dominating the market. The most common format is packs of pre-cooked whole mussels in sauce, which make up around 60 percent of retail sales. These may be chilled or frozen and the most common pack size is 500 grams, retailing at around GBP 5 (USD 7.71, EUR 5.89) to GBP 6 (USD 9.25, EUR 7.07) per kilogram.

Live mussels account for around 20 percent of retail sales, with the majority being offered in multiple retailers in pre-packed nets of 1 kilogram or in drip free MAP packs. The average price is GBP 3.75 (USD 5.78, EUR 4.42) per kilogram.

Frozen, pickled, marinated and canned mussel meats make up around 20 percent of retail sales and are often purchased as an ingredient to be added to seafood salads or pizza toppings for home preparation.

The market for both live mussels and convenience packs of mussels cooked in sauce is growing strongly, whilst frozen and marinated products are showing a decline.

Smaller retail outlets such as traditional fishmongers, van sales and market stalls have declined in recent years, but they remain important outlets for live mussels locally, particularly near areas of production where local sourcing is an important factor in driving sales. Prices in smaller retail outlets are similar to prices in the multiples at GBP 3 (USD 4.62, EUR 3.53) to GBP 4 (USD 6.17, EUR 4.71) per kilogram, although they can be as much as GBP 7 (USD 10.79, EUR 8.25) per kilogram.

Wholesalers purchase fresh and pre-packed cooked mussels and supply them into food service companies, catering chains, individual restaurants, fish vans and fishmongers. Foodservice and wholesalers combined account for slightly more than 50 percent of all U.K. mussel sales, with around 55 percent of those sales being fresh, live mussels.

The average U.K. mussel purchaser tends to be less affluent and older than the average fish purchaser and mussels have a low market penetration into U.K. households of about 10 percent. There are signs that this is now changing, with rising sales of fresh live mussels used for cooking dishes from scratch, and strong increases in sales of ready cooked convenience dishes.

Despite these changes, the overall pattern of consumption is for mussels to be eaten as an occasional event, mostly in a restaurant setting, with an upward trend from a low baseline.

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