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Execs: Fresh tilapia in need of marketing boost to counter slumping US demand

'Negative publicity caused by low quality frozen imports of tilapia' have an impact on sales, one exec tells IntraFish.

Differentiating and promoting fresh tilapia is needed to give the product's slumping demand a boost, industry executives told IntraFish.

"Demand has been a little soft over the last year," said Regal Springs Tilapia CEO Achim Eichenlaub.

Tropical Aquaculture Products CEO John Schramm agrees, saying "domestic [US] demand for tilapia is down roughly 5 percent for the fourth year in a row, and overall tilapia imports are down across the board."

Fresh tilapia needs stronger differentiation from frozen tilapia in the marketplace, he said.

Schramm said the demand for tilapia grew 20 years ago when wild-caught whitefish faced "serious supply issues," so a "few fresh tilapia pioneers in Latin America" stepped in to fill the void.

However, as demand shot up, frozen tilapia imports entered the supply chain, but "slowly became a quick substitute for more expensive whitefish. Doing this overlooked one very important caveat: Not all tilapia are farmed or taste the same.

"Imported frozen tilapia from Asia cannot be compared to fresh tilapia from Latin America; fresh and frozen tilapia share little more than their scientific name, however, the consumer often only hears the name tilapia and forms one all-encompassing perception, and we all know, perception is reality," he told IntraFish.

"Consumers don’t seem to trust the product anymore and are unsure what to look for to trust," Schramm said.

"Most consumers expect all food to be good for you and great tasting. That being said most consumers do get what they pay for in the grocery store, especially when it comes to fish. Cheaper fish isn't better fish, period."

The volume of fresh tilapia imports into the United States are stagnant this year, according to the latest statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

In the first 10 months of the year, US imports of fresh tilapia fillets were about the same in volume compared to the same period of time in 2015, but import value through October saw a 14 percent drop amounting to $139.6 million (€130.1 million) for 21,583 metric tons.

In comparison, the United States imported 107,909 metric tons of frozen tilapia fillets, worth $433.4 million (€403.8 million).

"Given the current volume of non-certified low-quality frozen imports, the consumer has a higher chance of having a negative experience with tilapia," said Schramm.

"This directly translates to a higher chance of tainted consumer perception of the species as a whole. This is not to suggest that all frozen 'Asian' tilapia is inferior to fresh, but a lot of it is. Unfortunately it is the consumer that ends up being the test subject." 

Out of all the tilapia the United States imported in the first 10 months of this year, nearly 60 percent were frozen fillets from just China, while fresh fillets accounted for only 13 percent.

"The largest factor contributing to decreased demand would have to be the years of negative publicity caused by low quality frozen imports. This negative publicity coupled with the high chance of negative consumer experiences has forced tilapia to fall from the pedestal of the consumer preferred white fish," said Schramm.

"While a few of the issues at the root of the negative publicity have been corrected by third party certifying bodies and eco labels, much of the damage has already been done in the minds of the consumer. That being said, an eco label does not directly equate to a positive consumer experience."

Eichenlaub told IntraFish fresh tilapia needs a marketing boost to better compete with other whitefish as well.

One of the main drivers impacting fresh tilapia demand "is the lack of promotion and advertising to keep fresh tilapia front of mind with consumers," he said.

"Faced with many alternative finfish choices, consumers need to be reminded of how versatile, healthy and easy to prepare fresh tilapia is. Regal Springs invests heavily in consumer advertising and we continue to work with our retail partners to address this need.

"The second factor of lower fresh tilapia demand this year has been pricing pressure from competitive whitefish species," Eichenlaub said.

Schramm also believes fresh tilapia needs an improved image in the marketplace.

"Looking toward the future, more specifically the upcoming year, we feel strongly that it is time for the responsibly farmed tilapia suppliers to change the conversation and thus the consumer mindset regarding tilapia as a species of great tasting, clean, and sustainable whitefish for everyone," he told IntraFish.

"The industry’s fresh tilapia producers will only overcome the negatives by investing heavily in reforming the consumer’s perception of tilapia.

"The obvious opportunity for the upcoming year is for the fresh tilapia producers to come together in a non-competitive environment and publicize the superiority of fresh tilapia from Latin America over Asian imports," Schramm said.

"Frozen Asian imports, more specifically those from China, are what you hear about in the negative press. It is our responsibility, as suppliers of Latin American tilapia, to differentiate these products. In this case one big bad apple did spoil the bunch."

Looking forward, Eichenlaub also feels "the fresh tilapia industry has both the challenge and opportunity moving forward to tell its story."

"Aquaculture in general, and tilapia specifically, is able to put a reasonably-priced healthy protein in front of the American consumer," he said. "Fresh tilapia shines as a clean, mild-tasting whitefish."

He added Regal Springs fresh tilapia comes form Honduran and Mexican farms and while it recognizes "the consumer’s fondness for wild-caught fish, the resource has been at its maximum sustainable yield for years, yet seafood consumption continues to grow." 

For next year, Eichenlaub said new packaging may change to help tilapia become more accessible in the United States, which "will continue to be the best market for fresh tilapia."

"Regarding a change in form, we have seen several major retailers merchandise fresh tilapia in various skin-pack formats. This form allows fresh tilapia to be merchandised easily in stores that do not have a full-service fresh seafood counter."

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