US producer Sterling Caviar differentiating itself from Chinese competition

Published on
May 15, 2019

Sterling Caviar was established by Norwegian-based Stolt Sea Farm in 1988 to raise white sturgeon at a farm in Elverta, California, U.S.A. Today, Sterling has a capacity of producing up to 15 metric tons of caviar annually.

The company’s new president, David Shenson, has been turning to Michelin-star chefs, social media, and consumers to educate them on the traditions of sustainable caviar farming, with the goal of gaining a larger market share of the 70 metric tons of caviar consumed annually in the U.S. Last year, China shipped more caviar to the U.S. than the rest of the world combined. Shenson wants American chefs to distinguish U.S. caviar from cheaper Chinese imports, and to be able to charge accordingly, according to company spokesperson Kate Muirhead. Muirhead spoke with SeafoodSource about getting more U.S. chefs to choose Sterling over imported caviar and about educating chefs and buyers to look for the farmed California white sturgeon labeling when doing their purchasing. 

SeafoodSource: What makes U.S. caviar so much more expensive than Chinese caviar, and how can the U.S. product compete?

Muirhead: There is no need to lower prices, as quality caviar in the method and way Sterling is currently producing it should not be reduced in price. What needs to happen is chefs and re-packers, as well as caviar distributors, need to highlight farmed California white sturgeon as a sustainable item with proper labeling to indicate such and raise their prices. Just as sommeliers appreciate wines from all over the world, or [how] micro-greens from small farmers who are sustainable are priced higher because of the work that goes into them, our farm should be treated similarly. 

Our parent company, Stolt, has invested in research in fisheries and has helped move the industry forward. Our DNA is pure from the native wild white sturgeon originally from waters just 12 miles away from the farm. We do not benefit from subsidies from the government, as Chinese caviar does. Additionally, many re-packers have built consumer trust up using American caviar in their marketing efforts when effectively the majority of their caviar is imported. Resellers from re-packers to restaurants need to adjust their pricing and be transparent about the type of sturgeon the eggs come from, the origin and if preservatives are used, with their clients and on their menus. If Chinese caviar is cheaper, [then they should] raise the price on the menu for American and educate the customers on the contrast of the two. 

SeafoodSource: Some Chinese caviar gets good reviews … Is this causing U.S. chefs to switch to this product?

Muirhead: We never said there aren't good products that are imported. We cannot speak for all farms processes, but we never said [all Chinese caviar] was bad. When we see farms with long distances from actual accounts, how does the term farm-to-table apply? There are good farms in different areas of the world, and most definitely in California. We know because we are the main one.

There is plenty of room [in the market] for both Chinese and United States caviar. They are all different varieties, grades, and come from different sources. What is important is that California has built a very quality reputation and the high demand for caviar should be met with a bit of consumer education on the sources of the roe.

SeafoodSource: Do you think the government should act to protect U.S. caviar from lower-priced imports, such as with the recent round of tariffs on Chinese caviar enacted as part of the U.S.-China trade war? How would you like to see the government act?

Muirhead: The government's role is broader than tariffs. The government can play a critical role in supporting transparency in seafood and sustainable farming by requesting that more detailed information be listed on all caviar labels. Much of our "fresh" fish consumed in the U.S. are imported and not always fresh or harvested with best practices. It is not different from caviar. From spawning to fully mature females, so many aspects must happen with a strong team of people to successfully harvest the caviar. Our product is roe and salt. It’s the purest caviar without preservatives. Some [of the preservatives used elsewhere in the industry] are disallowed in the U.S. but not all caviar is lab-tested when coming through customs. 

SeafoodSource: Is there room for both Chinese and U.S. caviar in the market?

Muirhead: There absolutely is room for many types of caviar in the market and these various styles and quality have helped to expand profound interest in the specialty food market. Chefs are becoming more willing to put the source of caviar on the menu.

Sterling as a pioneer farm in the U.S. and having helped farms abroad, with a strong team of biologists and broodstock experts, we are simply taking a stand for our own product. Sterling Caviar owns this pioneer story, having helped launch the farming of caviar in the United States, and its credit is well-deserved. Just as our discerning chefs and re-packers believe in us, we believe that with the proper education in the press and with our partners, our farms and business are sustainable. We seek not to disparage other farms as press sometimes try to spin it. We solely seek to educate that all fish are not alike, and neither are all eggs. 

Obviously, we are doing a good job, if any farms seek to gain attention from our best customers. [We ask chefs to] identify harvest location and species on labeling and menus or at least identify ours. Consumer transparency is important to people. China is producing five or more different varieties of sturgeon roe from various species of sturgeon. Sterling is focused on one, a brilliant sustainable fish that creates masterful grades ranging from small beads to large. Our fish is then sold and we celebrate the full life-cycle of our sturgeon.

SeafoodSource: What’s ultimately at stake for the industry in this effort? Do you see caviar farms in the U.S.A. going out of business if current trends continue?

Muirhead: Prior to the rise of imports, consumers did not have as many options. It’s important for caviar consumers to look beyond marketing and go behind the scenes to the source of their roe. We simply want to live in a diverse caviar culture that praises the pioneer of the farmed sturgeon industry, which is right here in Sacramento, California, while also celebrating its thriving wild population as well. We can’t speak to other farms in the United States, but we do support sustainable aquaculture programs wherever they are. 

Of the 27 wild sturgeon species, the California white sturgeon is considered a stable population with many other wild species listed as endangered, critically endangered, or near extinction. Sterling has had a fully domesticated population of world-class farmed white sturgeon for more than 20 years. By supplying live farmed fish, eggs, and tissue samples to biologists at University of California, Davis, Sterling aids research to increase the wild sturgeon population even further. 

SeafoodSource: Why aren’t chefs more actively telling the story of U.S. caviar, given it might allow them to charge a premium price?

Muirhead: Chefs are certainly starting to. That is what we are focusing on this year. With the rise of social media, blogging, food shows, and videos you can’t escape transparency anymore and that will work in our favor as we are very proud and honored to tell our story.

Photo courtesy of Sterling Caviar

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