Chinese importers race to meet oyster demand

Published on
September 29, 2013

Sales of imported oysters in China continue to grow at a steady pace, according to veteran importers and vendors here. Oyster sales are growing at 20 percent on last year at Beijing oyster bar Starfish, according to manager-owner Chris Herbert.
While oysters from Australia and New Zealand are popular, the French-origin Gillardeau retains a very strong brand consciousness among Chinese consumers, says Herbert. However China’s oyster hunger — and an increase in venues here serving oysters — has also created problems as suppliers race to cash in on Chinese demand. Herbert notes that foreign (out of season) oysters are often shipped into China while still half-spawning, and are accepted in part due to a lack of awareness and product knowledge among consumers.

In Shanghai, U.S. oyster restaurateur David Brode this year opened the new Shanghai Oyster Bar on Yuyuan Lu street with a largely Australian line-up of oysters which he’s serving to locals for as little as RMB 20 (USD 3.27, EUR 2.42) per piece. Brode’s new project is a partnership with Guangzhou-based food importer FT Fine Foods. “Volume is key to oyster success in China,” Brode said. “We are trying to sell high volumes at a lower price.”

Brode’s strategy is also influenced by new economic realities in China. Spending is down this year in Shanghai, a feature of a government frugality campaign cutting back official entertainment. Average spend per person of RMB 1,000 (USD 163.37, EUR 121.01) has dropped by half in the past year, said Brode. “People are not spending what they were.”

Brode, who earlier this year sold his share in the Shanghai-based Plump Oyster restaurant to his Chinese business partner, said oyster importers benefit from a “perception that’s been cemented in the Chinese consumer’s mind” that imported oysters are chemical-free and fit to eat raw, unlike domestic oysters which typically sell at a fraction of the price of imported oysters.

The lack of traceability also remains a key issue in China; Herbert points to a recent experience with a supplier who insisted the oysters were from South Africa (South African oysters are a hit with Chinese consumers like more fatty types of oysters). “He said they were from Walvis Bay, but that’s in Namibia,” said Herbert, who stressed he has no problem with oysters from Namibia but simply seeks full traceability from suppliers. Also, Herbert has been offered “Canadian” oysters which turned out to be Korean. “It being out of (Canadian) season I questioned him ... he then said they were Korean.”

A visit to Beijing’s enormous Jingshen seafood markets suggests there are dozens of Chinese trading firms keen to import oysters. Importing oysters can be a lucrative — but risky — business in China, Brode said. “Margins are as high as 50 percent for importers yet oyster mortality rates can be high, and oyster wholesalers frequently lose money on unsold stock.”

Working directly with overseas oyster farmers is key to stability of supply and pricing for Brode. He doesn’t import South African oysters because supply into China remains controlled by two import firms, which also control pricing. Brode plans to increase his volumes, with plans to import French and Irish stock in the coming months.

Located on Dongzhimenwai Street in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, Starfish has ramped up its lobster business, putting more lobster dishes (predominantly North American lobsters) on the menu while also offering a take-out service that allows customers to purchase lobsters for home use.

Starfish also serves Canadian jade whelks, Icelandic shrimp, New Zealand mussels and Alaska halibut. Herbert hopes traceability in China’s seafood industry will gradually improve, with suppliers coming to see the value proposition in better traceability. He points hopefully to evidence of better traceability at the retail level. Hai Mai, a local firm supplying retailers like Beijing Hualian, includes details on its packaging such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) area coordinates of the seafood.

More information and education will help drive consumer demand for traceability, suggests Herbert, pointing to an elaborate seafood store opened recently in Shanghai by the Pacific Andes conglomerate.  “Such a store creates more awareness of the origin of products … more information the better.”

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