Irish delegation pushing sales in China

Published on
April 1, 2012

Ireland’s seafood sector will travel in force to China this month in a delegation of food exporters led by Simon Coveney, the country’s agricultural minister.

The delegation, which will visit several Chinese cities from 10 to 15 April, will include representatives of seafood companies and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), Ireland’s seafood promotion board. BIM sees growing sales to China as vital to its plan to expand the Irish seafood sector to EUR 1 billion worth of product by 2020, from EUR 730 million in 2010.

Donal Buckley, BIM’s head of international markets, said the Chinese market was valued at more than EUR 4 million in 2010, with the bulk of that in pelagic fish, including blue whiting for reprocessing. Irish seafood companies that export to this market include Sean Ward Fish Exports Ltd., Killybegs Seafoods and Arctic Seafoods Ltd.

BIM is working with seafood companies to develop more targeted trade with China, specifically increasing shellfish exports. Buckley sees China quickly overtaking Korea — sales, largely of shellfish, to Korea were worth EUR 7 million to Ireland in 2010 — due to double digit growth in shipments of product for consumption in China.

“There’s good enough margins” to make it worthwhile flying crab and shellfish to Beijing or Shanghai, said Buckley who explained that a series of technologies like vivair, which keeps crabs alive for the long journey. Irish exporters booked EUR 130 million from shellfish exports in 2010, compared to EUR 50 million from whitefish exports.

Buckley foresees a rapid shift from Ireland shipping whitefish to China for processing to shipments of high-value product for consumption in Chinese restaurants. He also thinks abalone and crab from Ireland’s Atlantic west coast will sell well to high-end Chinese diners.

Irish exporters will use the health benefits of fish like mackerel (high in omega-3s) as a major marketing plank in China. Another selling point is the comparative cleanness of Irish waters. “The cold North Atlantic — there’s nothing cleaner,” said Buckley.

Irish companies showing their wares in November at China’s largest annual seafood trade fair in Qingdao, China’s seafood-processing, included Hannigan Fish Trading Co. from Killybegs and Cork-based Murphy’s Irish Seafood.

Murphy’s China-based head of sales, Stephen O’Sullivan, said since the show he’s sold a “trial shipment” in China. Shanghai-based O’Sullivan stressed the ethical, sustainable and organic hallmarks of Irish seafood. Ultimately, however, O’Sullivan sees his role beyond Irish seafood, rather as a niche, service-focused supplier of premium product to China. With a previous background in consulting in China, O’Sullivan sees the country as the “the premium market” and sources seafood from beyond Ireland for Chinese customers.

O’Sullivan stresses the Irish pristine environment and sustainable and organic husbandry of his firm’s organic salmon, mussels and brown crab as well as scallops. “We own and manage our own hatcheries, farms and processing facility run by a crew of dedicated professionals,” he said.

Also from Cork, the firm offers Chinese buyers, through a Chinese representative in Hebei, near Beijing shipments of eel, ling and flounder year-round. Prawns and scallops are shipped August to November, along with white sole. The firm also offers black cod and crayfish.

Good government ties may be useful for Irish seafood exporters in China. Buckley is confident that China will embrace Irish product due to recognition of the country’s expertise in food safety. Last year, Coveney hosted a delegation led by China’s agriculture vice-minister, Niu Dun, that visited BIM’s Backweston Laboratory Campus and studied Ireland’s food-safety and traceability systems. The delegation also visited offshore salmon farming facilities, said Buckley.

BIM has conducted market research in China to help Irish firms tailor their product. Since Asians prefer their seafood fresh (alive) and haven’t adjusted well to frozen product, BIM reckons that there’s good enough margins to justify flying seafood. Korea and Japan have already proven worthwhile markets for fresh Irish crab and oysters respectively.

Aside from Korea and China, Egypt and Nigeria rank as top markets outside of the EU, which accounts for 75 percent of Irish seafood exports. France remains the No. 1 destination for Irish seafood, representing EUR 100 million or 25 percent of a EUR 375 million export business in 2010.

As part of its strategy to boost production value to EUR 1 billion by 2020, BIM will implement a labeling program to help differentiate Irish product in international markets. To that end, BIM has established an ISO 65 labeling system, the first by an EU member state. Assistance is also being offered to Irish processors on marketing and packaging. Though many Irish players struggle for margins due to a lack of production scale, Irish firms are “small but dynamic,” said Buckley.

Meanwhile, a flat economy in Ireland may spur more imports of cheap farmed Chinese product such as tilapia, acknowledged Buckley. The domestic market accounts for EUR 340 million of output — Ireland’s per-capita seafood consumption of 17 kilograms seems small next to the China’s 27 kilograms.

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