Washington Shellfish Conquer New Territories as China Re-Opens
National and international markets for US West Coast shellfish are on an upward trajectory – mussel bars are the latest fashion in Washington DC and spreading to other east coast cities, gourmet oysters are sold by their bay or inlet of origin like fine wines, consumers in the Midwest are being introduced to the delights of tideflat delicacies, and China is again rolling out the welcome mat for Washington and Alaska geoducks.
The biggest news is China's late May lifting of its six month ban on the importation of US geoducks, re-opening the door to the single largest and most lucrative export market for US shellfish. That was followed by the mid-June release of a list of Puget Sound areas that the Washington State Department of Healtha (DOH) announced as cleared for geoduck export to China after testing for inorganic arsenic.
"We've been collecting samples of farmed and wild geoduck from numerous Puget Sound locations," said Jerrod Davis, DOH director of the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. "Shellfish areas that are intended for geoduck harvest to China need to be tested for inorganic arsenic. This is the bottom line. NOAA has agreed to certify for export those areas that test below China's inorganic arsenic standard." (see sidebar for areas cleared as of June 12).
The recent issue with US geoducks exported to China revealed that the two countries have differing interpretations of health risks associated with inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is not routinely monitored in the US because it is not considered a public health concern for US consumers.
This approach is based on the fact that inorganic arsenic is generally rare in the marine environment in the US, and exposure to inorganic arsenic in the US is typically low, plus American consumption patterns differ from those in China and other countries. Inorganic arsenic accumulates in the skin and gutball of geoduck. However, because of US consumption patterns, which differ from those in other countries, including China, these specific portions of the animal are generally not consumed in the US.
"Arsenic accumulations appear to be higher in older wild geoducks coming from the deeper subtidal zones," said Davis. "Geoducks that are farmed close to shore in the intertidal zones generally have much lower accumulations of inorganic arsenic."
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Company concurs with Davis' observations. "We have a lot of data from farmed and wild geoducks," he said. "We have seen potential problems with wild specimens in a lot of areas. The anomaly is the concentration in the skin, perhaps it's a matter of age or depth. Concentrations in intertidal farmed geoducks appear to be low."
China is an important market for Taylor Shellfish – the company has distributors in Hong Kong and 13 Asian countries, but China is Taylor's largest market, exporting approximately 50,000 pounds of geoducks and 10,000 pounds of oysters per month before the ban was imposed.
"We export about half of our total production," said Dewey. "My perception is that across the board, demand exceeds supply."
Taylor Shellfish may export half of its production, but the company is not ignoring opportunities to add value and increase earnings and market share in the US, Taylor has entered the restaurant business using the farm-to-table model with Taylor Oyster Bars, and has locations in the upscale and hip Seattle neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Pioneer Square.
"At Taylor Oyster Bars, we intend to raise the bar on what you should expect when you enjoy Taylor Shellfish," says the company on its dedicated oyster bar website. "We own the entire process, from the hatchery to the harvest to the presentation. Our knowledgeable staff can tell you the whole story of how our shellfish is cared for on clean beaches, in specific areas, because habitat definitely influences the taste. We are farmers at heart and stewards of our marine environment, dedicated to bringing sustainably-farmed, world-class shellfish from our nurseries to your table."
Penn Cove Shellfish is another Puget Sound mollusk producer that is breaking into new and bigger markets with Penn Cove Mussels, Mediterranean mussels, Manila clams and 27 varieties of Pacific oysters from the company's allied growers.
The company's focus to date has been on expanding its domestic markets.
"There are a lot of areas in the US, especially the Midwest, that have the idea that you can't get fresh mussels and seafood," said Tim Jones, Penn Cove's operations manager. "The solution is education. You have to show people that it is possible to have truly fresh shellfish year 'round."
Mussels are Penn Cove's signature shellfish product and the company has been very successful with its promotion of mussels as a headliner dish in major east coast urban markets such as New York and Washington, DC.
"People in France and Belgium eat about 16 pounds of mussels per capita every year," said Jones. "There is a chain of very popular and upscale mussel bars in DC that is owned by a gentleman from Belgium. His menu features great Belgian beers with mussels."
Penn Cove takes advantage of communications technology to ensure that restaurants from Seattle to DC receive their mussels, clams and oysters as close to fresh harvested as possible.
"It takes a lot of planning and coordination to make it all happen," said Jones. "Each week we do an in-house cutting where we rate our oysters on sweetness, brininess, size, and other factors. We harvest to order every day. A chef in Phoenix can go on our website to pick and order. Our crews go out early in the morning with a guesstimate of what the day's pick will be – meanwhile our salespeople are calling customers and all final orders are in by 11 a.m.
"Shellfish harvested and prepared today are in San Francisco and Phoenix in time for lunch by noon tomorrow and are on dinner plates in Manhattan and DC."
The company caters to chefs by taking measures to minimize preparation once the shellfish have arrived at the restaurant's kitchen.
"We don't want the chefs to have to do any work," said Jones. "We de-beard the mussels, let the clams purge and wash the oysters before shipping. Plus they like that they can get a variety of oysters from various producing areas with one call.
"Our oysters are all sold according to the body of water or river inlet they come from, such as Dabob Bay or Samish Bay. It's like wines or craft beers. They all have different flavor profiles. Shellfish take on the flavor of the water where they are raised – the salinity, the algae, and so on."
Penn Cove started as a mussel grower, then worked with an oyster grower in Samish Bay. "We have grown a step at a time," said Jones. "Our customers keep asking if they can get more product from us. Shellfish farming is tough work, most small growers don't have the time to market, so we stepped in and are helping small as well as large farmers reach better markets and better prices."
Education is the bottom line in Penn Cove's marketing strategy to expand the national market for its products, from mussels to oysters and clams.
"Once you get people to try truly fresh, quality shellfish – and let them know what it is supposed to taste like – they always want more. We want our customers to be happy when they see the Penn Cove brand on a menu."