Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: From Lake Victoria to your fish counter

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, supermarkets started to add service seafood departments to satisfy their customers' interest in one-stop shopping. The New England fisheries played a major role in this explosion, providing the nation's grocers with what seemed at the time like an endless supply of cod, flounder, and haddock—the so-called "white-flesh fish." After all, George's Bank, just several hundred miles off the coast of Massachusetts, boasted the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Oh, how times have changed!

Today, the cod and haddock fishery offers meager harvests, even after nearly three decades of strict conservation. Consequently, consumers have learned to cook other fish. Who would have guessed that by the 1990s catfish would be one of the five top-selling fish? The supermarket seafood counter is no longer a cavalcade of domestic fish, but rather a global cornucopia of exotic-sounding species, some with names that are difficult to pronounce.

Today's supermarket seafood counter needs to be an international fish market to attract new customers. Therefore, seafood operators would do well to learn all they can about these species that are new to the marketplace and perhaps create a niche in their market area by educating their customers.

Two fish that are gaining in popularity worldwide are Lake Victoria perch from east Africa and tilapia from Costa Rica. Both are white-flesh, mild-flavored fish that lend themselves to conventional cooking methods.

If size is an indication of the magnitude of a fishery, consider this: Lake Victoria is nearly the size of West Virginia and is the largest tropical lake in the world. The amazing Lake Victoria perch, which is the world's largest fresh water fish, can grow to more than 500 pounds.

Retailers should be excited about this fish, considering that it has all the nutritional characteristics found most attractive by consumers and dieticians. A 3.5-ounce raw portion has just 93 calories and 1.8 grams of fat. However, for the supermarket operator who is interested in creating a niche with a healthy seafood theme, the big news is Omega-3. Lake Victoria perch, with 710 mg per serving, has one of the highest levels of Omega-3 fatty acids of any fish.

Lake Victoria perch is available to North America, Japan, China, Australia, and Europe as fresh or frozen skinless fillets, as well as whole frozen. Fillets are white, succulent, virtually boneless, and offer full flavor. The fish is an excellent substitute for sea bass, cod, and grouper fillets.

Tilapia and catfish

Tilapia, grown in Costa Rica, Ecuador, China, and Southeast Asia, is becoming a very popular farm-raised fish. In the 1960s, farming fish in the United States began in Arkansas with an age-old species known as catfish. While the marketing and acceptance of the fish were slow, today the U.S. farmed catfish industry is truly a success story. The mild, sweet, lean meat of tilapia is similar to catfish, so it's not very surprising that, after years of struggle in the marketplace, tilapia recently moved to 10th place in seafood consumption in the U.S., according to the National Fisheries Institute.

This fish grows to a market size of one to two pounds and is featured at seafood counters worldwide, mostly in fillet form. The meat is white to pinkish-white and cooks quickly with tender flakes. Although tilapia has no claim to Omega-3 benefits, it offers just 85 calories per 3.5-ounce raw serving. Retailers would do well to suggest tilapia to customers who tend to favor flounder, catfish, or orange roughy.

One step in creating a global seafood niche is to identify the countries your product comes from. In a few years, this may be required by law. More than half the seafood variety in an average supermarket today is likely to be imported. Consumers need to know more about seafood, and they want to know more.

Another step is to accompany the identification of each species with the names of other fish that are similar in texture and taste. A substitution chart or handout card that cross-references imported species with familiar domestic fish would be a great tool. This way the consumer can make an informed choice.

Whenever a new food product, especially seafood, is introduced, most customers ask, "What does it taste like?" All they want to know is if they will like it before they make a purchase. Timely in-store cooking demonstrations of fish with unusual names can help bridge that concern.

The Internet is the resource center of the world today. Take the time to reference a few sites using search words like tilapia, Lake Victoria perch, orange roughy, and New Zealand hoki. Make these Web sites known to your customers so they can find the best ways to prepare these fish: and

Importers are also an excellent resource for promoting new or unusual seafood. Contact your suppliers and ask for point-of-sale materials. E-mail the seafood promotion agency or councils in the country producing the fish, and have them send you information on the fishery and the products.

Yes, times have changed. Modern, high-speed transportation, combined with advancements in refrigeration and food safety, have created an environment in which a store in Idaho can receive fish from Africa nearly as easily as rainbow trout from Soda Springs. Retailers who boldly promote their seafood operations as global, and create that special niche, will find it easier to sell new farm-raised species or underutilized wild fish in the future.

Michael F. Bavota is a frequent writer on seafood merchandising and training issues, and is the author of Seafood Lover's Bible.
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