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On a recent Saturday in May, more than 30 million households in China watched a television cooking show called Taste Life. One of the featured ingredients on that particular episode was a new and still fairly uncommon food product in China: Canadian lobster. The episode was actually the second this year incorporating the hearty crustacean. For the industry at home, the TV spots constitute a small victory. “These are young, hip, Chinese chefs,” says Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada. “So, lobster is getting that kind of exposure now.”
Photo: Gary Corbett
For the past few years, the industry has been working hard to break into China—the biggest lobster market in the world—to offset declining sales in the United States. The recession hammered harvesters and processors as American consumers cut back and the Canadian loonie rose against the greenback, squeezing profits. The industry, with help from Maritimes governments, significantly boosted marketing efforts to China in 2010. Those efforts are now paying off. Amazingly, exports have tripled since 2010 to nearly $30 million per year. (In 2007, lobster exports to China totalled only $1.6-million.) Irvine says China will likely surpass the European Union as the industry’s second-largest export destination this year (the United States is still No. 1).
Pitching lobster to cooking shows was a joint effort by the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The latter two also organized training sessions for Chinese chefs at high-end restaurants and brought food journalists to the Maritimes in 2010 to learn about the industry. The education process was important, since the Canadian variety differs from the Australian spiny lobster that China was used to—Canada’s species is smaller, and the Aussie version has no claws. “We’ve really had to make people get used to the claws,” Irvine says.
Now that the product is gaining ground with hotels, chefs and restaurants, some in the industry are worried about selling its merits short. Despite the two-day trek it must take to China, Canadian lobster sells for about a third of the price of Australian lobster, which is getting harder to come by due to over-fishing. As a result, the Canadian variety is not viewed as a premium product. But Canadian exporters, bruised by the recession, are so happy to have customers, they’re willing to sell into China at “giveaway” prices, says Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster in Tangier, N.S.
Simply charging more could benefit the industry as a whole and improve lobster’s cachet. It’s a delicate balance, however, and exporters are conscious about pricing themselves out of the market. Deciding whether it’s to be high-end fare or a commodity product could help solidify the lobster’s image in China.
In the meantime, the industry is content with the benefits of an expanding export market. “I’d say without any hesitation that for the industry as a whole, China has been very, very helpful,” says Lamont.