Tilapia’s appeal only widening

Published on
December 19, 2011

On any given day at Holiday Market in Royal Oak, Mich., the seafood department will sell about 10 pounds of tilapia. But come Tuesday, those sales triple to about 30 pounds as shoppers take part in “Tantalizing Tilapia Tuesdays” at this specialty grocer.

Started as a promotion to draw in customers on the slower shopping days, Seafood Department Manager Alex Draper says tilapia, which is consistent in both supply and price, was his best choice for a featured fish. The fish regularly sells for $7.99 a pound, but is discounted to $6.49 on Tuesdays.

“We started with Wacky Whitefish Wednesdays,” he explains, but it became too difficult to get the fish every week. Draper carries only fresh tilapia sourced from South American farms, rather than buying frozen fillets from China. The fresh is more appealing to his customers, whom he says are familiar with tilapia and buy it over other white-fleshed species such as cod and haddock.

“Most people have a sense of what to do with it,” he says, although staff can provide a recipe suggestion or two if needed.

Those who supply tilapia to retailers and foodservice accounts echo Draper’s experience with the popularity of the fish. Tilapia became the No. 4 top-selling species on the U.S. per-capita consumption list in 2010, behind shrimp, canned tuna and salmon. And it climbed to that position rather quickly, going from No. 10 in 2002 to No. 9 the following year, and then No. 6 in 2004 and 2005 until it became No. 5 from 2006 to 2009.

Tilapia is described as a blank canvas — a flaky, mild (some say bland) fish that takes breading, coatings and sauces easily to transform it into something that is appealing to consumers who eschew “fishy” seafood.

“It’s been accepted as one of the core species,” says Keith Decker, president and COO of High Liner Foods USA, Fishery Products International and Viking Seafoods in Danvers, Mass. The company buys frozen tilapia from China, Indonesia and Thailand, and also purchases some fresh product for specific customers.

China was the leading supplier of imported tilapia to the United States in 2010, providing more than 348 million pounds of primarily frozen fillets. The other leading frozen supplier to the United States was Indonesia, with about 22.5 million pounds.

Click here to read the full story, which appeared in the December issue of SeaFood Business magazine >

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