Franco-Irish oyster co. sales surge in China

Published on
October 10, 2014

A Franco-Irish oyster producer is projecting sales growth of 30 to 40 percent per annum each year for the next three years on the basis of its sales in China so far. Production of the Speciale oysters is set to increase in Ireland with excellent growth and survival in 2014. Based in County Donegal on Ireland’s west coast, Majestic Oysters Co (Speciales-Donegal Bay) currently ships 80 percent of boxed product to Asia, according to marketing manager Des Moore who operates the firm with French oyster specialist Jacques Cocollos. “Our facilities and outlying growing sites have the ability to produce up to 500 tons of quality Speciales however the threat of mortality while absent in 2014 on our sites will always be a dark cloud on the horizon,” he told Seafoodsource.

The duo were at the recent Asian Seafood Expo 2014 was a useful opportunity to evaluate the progress of brand "Majestic" which was first introduced to the market at last year’s Seafood Expo in Hong Kong. “The views of the distributors [he met at recent Hong Kong expo] were very beneficial and concur with my view that quality, consistency and attention to detail ultimately will get brand recognition. You need to have a full range of sizes grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and jumbo all year round. And ability to deliver each weekday if necessary.”

Moore says the firm is “optimistic” about building its presence in mainland China: aside from several distributors in Hong Kong the firm now has sales penetration in the key mainland cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai.

According to Moore, Irish brand recognition is gradually progressing thanks to a new marketing push by the country’s food exports promotion agency, Bord Bia. Moore says Bord Bia’s recently promoted Origin Green label is a “distinctly fresh approach to sustainability, traceability and promotion” of the nation’s unpolluted Atlantic waters. “There is now a clear understanding by the distributors that most of the top quality oysters that originate from Europe are grown to the full size in Ireland and ultimately this will filter down to the consumer.”

He thinks this will “definitely resonate” with new markets like Asia. “Nevertheless, the presence of French oyster brands is huge and the market here is particularly open to top quality oyster brands. The fact we pack and/or refine oysters in France give us a Celtic/Franco appeal that certainly does help in the market.”

Irish oyster production has faced uncertainty over licensing under the European Union’s Natura 2000 system designed to protect nature reserves from shellfish farming. Under the country’s National Development Plan 2000-2006 Ireland earmarked EUR 70 million (USD 88.4 million) for the development of shellfish aquaculture, though environmentalists have argued this was done without a strategic review of possible environmental impacts. Thus producers are required to get licenses in compliance with SACs [Special Areas of Conservation] and Natura 2000.

The licensing position in Ireland is being resolved quickly, said Moore. But, he cautioned, “the predominance of oyster farms in the future will be somewhat limited, with probably a maximum of 3,000 to 4,000 metric tons (MT) of top quality Speciale possible. The abundance of SAC's (Special Areas of Conservation) mitigates against the overproduction of Speciales. The Speciales require a balance of freshwater and oceanic conditions to create a full sweet tasting white plump meat. The lesser quality standard can probably progress to 6,000 MT but this product in French supermarkets is price stagnant and faces an uncertain future.”

Chinese consumers have in recent years turned on to imported oysters, which command a huge price premium on the vast quantities of local oysters produced largely for oyster sauce. In Beijing, the upscale Oyster Talks restaurant in the Worker’s Stadium complex is this week charging RMB 58 (USD 9.46, EUR 7.49) for each of its oysters. Most of these are listed on the restaurant menu as coming from France (Gilardeau and Speciales) but there’s also South African rock and New Zealand (Gigas). Staff at the restaurant — which also serves filets of Australian barramundi (RMB 188 [USD 30.67, EUR 24.28]), black cod (RMB 228 [USD 37.19, EUR 29.45]) and Boston lobster (RMB 388 [USD 63.29, EUR 50.12]) — told Seafoodsource that French varieties are most in demand among the customers who appear to be predominantly Chinese white collar and business classes.

Oyster consumption, like many trends in China, often starts in the wealthy coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai, which are China’s financial hubs. On Tak Mon Street in Hong Kong, the Oyster Hut restaurant is proof that oyster consumption has moved on from hotel buffets to being more sophisticated about oyster taste and origin. There is much more awareness of what’s French and what’s Australian, explained Frankie Yu Wai Kei, who was last year named Hong Kong shucking champion in a locally organized competition. “It used to be that oyster consumption was only for people who can afford a HKD 1,000 (USD 128.87, EUR 102.04) dinner, but now we have standalone oyster restaurants and free in-store tasting,” Yu Wai Kei told local media recently.

In Shanghai the Oyster Kitchen on Yongjia Lu boasts 17 different varieties including Gillardeaus and Fine de Claires from France, Kumamotos and West Coast Virgins from the American Pacific Northwest and Gigas from Australia. It also offers cooked oysters: Cajun fried or Kilpatrick.

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