Facing counterfeiting issues in Chinese market, Des Moore rebrands his Irish oysters

Des Moore is the director of Bells Isle Seafoods, which ships Irish oysters to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai under the Unique and Bells Isle Oysters brands. Last year, the company was honored with Aquaculture Enterprise of the Year 2018 in the awards run by Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish seafood marketing authority.

Moore recently made the decision to move exclusively into producing and marketing Irish oysters, as he believes the time is right for a fully Irish name in the highly brand-conscious Chinese market. Moore previously shipped oysters through France with a French partner, and Moore’s shift in strategy comes after both a break with that partner and in light of counterfeiting issues pertaining to his Majestic brand of oysters.  

In general, however, the ties between French and Irish oyster production remain numerous. Rising summer temperatures in French waters has led local oyster producers there to invest in Irish production, with one-third of oyster farms now being French-owned, according to Moore. Many of the oysters grown in Irish waters are now being packed in France as French oysters, he said.

While water temperatures are cooler in Ireland, the country is still experiencing an increase in algal blooms, Moore said. To cope, Bells Isle Seafoods grows oysters in five different bays in County Donegal, and Moore credits the diversification for limiting his firm’s exposure, with one bay suffering major mortality this year. Furthermore, the mortalities have opened up a market opportunity in China, as the algal blooms have created a shortage of the larger-sized grade 1 and grade 0 oysters, which are preferred in China.

SeafoodSource: How has the reception been to the launch of your new brands, and how do you feel about moving to an entirely Irish identity?

Moore: It has been interesting and positive. Becoming truly Irish instead of Franco-Irish brand-wise is liberating and fulfilling.

SeafoodSource: Did you find that being packaged as French was indirectly beneficial to your brand, given the pricing power and prestige of the French name in China?

Moore: Packaging from France originally was beneficial in attaining higher price for our brand. However, a number of factors have changed. Summer temperatures in France can cause up to 10 percent mortality between delivery and packaging, but mortality is almost zero when [they are] packed in Ireland. Airfreight cargo is marginally cheaper from Ireland to China than from France, and labor costs and corporation tax rates are more attractive in Ireland. Sending product to France through the land bridge of the U.K. is mired in confusion, with trucks possibly facing a day extra in transit in customs due to the nonsense that is Brexit. Finally, the wisdom of promoting a high-quality Irish brand is gaining credence, rather than being entwined in the plethora of French/Franco-Irish brands that are endless and [which all] sell similar types of oysters. And sustainability and oyster culture that is compatible with the environment is important to me. Transferring oysters from Ireland to France to put into a wooden box [so they can be branded as French] doesn't seem prudent or logical in the long-term.

SeafoodSource: But you are still selling to France?

Moore: My business is based on maintaining sales of bulk speciale – an oyster variety common in France – to France. Sales of 10-gram to 50-gram seed and half-grown to France is also important. This accounts for half our business, with the remainder being boxed to Asia. Whilst the box market offers tremendous opportunities, it still must be taken in the context of a world that can change overnight due to tariffs, civil unrest, environmental difficulties, and the whim of the marketplace. A balance of sales into different markets whilst growing oysters in different bays leaves me optimistic for the future. 

SeafoodSource: Was the launch of the new brands at all a response to counterfeiting issues? How did you become aware of the counterfeiting and what form did it take?

Moore: I became aware of counterfeiting when we suspended sales of Majestic into China following the transfer of [our] operations from France to Ireland. It seemed sales of Majestic-brand oysters continued unabated, with varying quality of product. This meant that when we began selling Majestic out of Ireland again, some distributors were reluctant to buy this brand, as clearly fake product was being sold under the same branding. This seems normal enough and is a distasteful aspect of this market.

SeafoodSource: What trends do you see in Chinese oyster consumption, and how do those trends fit into your growth plan?

Moore: Chinese distributors have become more and more discerning, so much so that they are coming to visit us at our premises in Donegal. They now know places like Donegal Bay, Clew Bay, and Bannow Bay [on the Irish coast] as top-quality oyster sites. [And] the inquiries for Grade 1 and 0 have been endless, while a change in size being ordered is very evident, particularly in Shanghai, with the grades of 3, 4 and 5 showing growing interest. [As a result], larger consignments and a focus on mainland China is [in our plans], with the scope for a high-quality brand having endless possibilities.

SeafoodSource: What kind of customers are buying the grade 3, 4, and 5 oysters in Shanghai?

Moore: Stemming from the reluctance of oyster growers in Ireland and France to grow the larger grades of 1 and 0, there has been an increase in sales of grade 2, 3, 4, and 5 in Beijing and Shanghai. Grade 5 oysters are sold to hotels, with grade 2 and 3 primarily seen in restaurants. This trend will have to continue if this trade is to continue between Europe and Asia. Guangzhou is the traditional home of the very big oyster and it is slower to change to smaller sizes, but Ireland and France will not be able to fill the void for this large market. 

SeafoodSource: Speaking of environmental difficulties, what's causing the algal bloom in Ireland? Is it worse than in earlier years?

Moore: Algal blooms are becoming common, and coupled with certain vibrio species, herpes virus in seed can cause huge damage. This year, the south coast had major losses in oyster stocks with the bigger grade 1 and 0 being the worst-hit. In 2018, the mid-west coast had similar mortalities.

The challenge is to spread the risk by having stock in different bays on the north, south, and west coastlines. [Another solution is] growing oysters at an increased exposure to air, thereby making the oyster harder and stronger. Likewise, husbandry involving shaking and turning up to six or seven times during the growing season also round the oysters, increase meat yield and drastically reduce mortality when there is any environmental hit from the Kareina-type algal bloom. All these measures have ensured stable production for us since 2012, when 80 to 90 percent of stock was decimated in Donegal Bay.

SeafoodSource: Algal blooms are nothing new in Ireland, but do you believe they are happening more frequently or that they’re worse than they used to be?

Moore: Yes, algal blooms seem more frequent. Pollution inputs, heavy rainfall, vibrio bacteria, and herpes presence are all contributing to create an imbalance in the environment and it's becoming very difficult to pinpoint any single one of the above to attribute in isolation to any large mortality event. As far as I can see, it is becoming more and more difficult to grow big oysters all over the world. It's a combination of about 10 variables. When these variables occur at the same time, they dramatically increase the stress factors [facing the oysters] and cause mortality.

Photo courtesy of Belle Isle Seafoods


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