French oyster producers recover, set sights on Asia
An expected recovery in European oyster output this year will put the continent in a commanding position to capture growing Asian demand, according to a leading French oyster expert and marketing executive.
France is expecting 80,000 metric tons (MT) of oysters in 2013, “well down on 150,000 MT we get in a good year,” explained Nicolas Brossard, government-appointed head of quality for oyster production in the French region of Poitou Charentes. Producers in the region have grouped under the brand name Marennes Oléron, named for an oyster-producing region on France’s west coast of which Poitou Charentes is part.
“When output recovers we will need customers for increased volume,” said Brossard. He believes Asia will buy the increased output of French oyster cultivators — denied access to the U.S. market over sanitary standards.
European oyster production has this year been crimped by a herpes-type virus related to warmer water conditions. Anticipating rising Asian demand, oyster farmers in the region have teamed with wine producing region Chablis to co-promote each other in China and other Asian markets. The two have mounted pavilions in wine and seafood trade shows in Europe and the U.S. this year and are also exhibiting at the Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong.
“We wanted an export partner that would portray a similar image of France and quality,” explained Brossard. “If we have more oysters the price will drop but Asian demand will be strong…China could buy all the oysters in France.”
The Marennes Oléron brand is currently seeking importers in mainland China for its four grades of oysters: from the less meaty Fine d’ Eclaire to the ‘la Pousse en Claire’, it’s priciest and meatiest oyster. “Asian consumers prefer a larger, more meaty oyster,” according to Brossard.
He believes the different grades will match market trends in Asia, where aside from an evolving trend of consumption at high-end oyster bars in leading cities like Beijing, there’s growing demand from expansion of hotel chains offering lower-grade oysters in buffets.
“Our oysters are priced at different levels to meet different needs,” said Brossard.
Asian oyster demand is more year-round compared to consumption in France, which remains centered around Christmas and the end of year party season. However the cost of getting oyster to China is as high as the cost of the oyster. “It’s very expensive,” said Brossard.
The largest oyster cultivation base in Europe, Marennes-Oléron is located on the coast of the French region Charente-Maritime. Located on an estuary just off the Bay of Biscay, production here accounts for approximately 45 percent of the entire French oyster industry.