Processors in Canada, Chile and China are in search of markets for frozen mussels

If you’ve noticed a lot more moules on menus lately, you’re not alone. In the year 2000 alone, the volume of mussels sold in the United States jumped almost 20 percent, to about 27,000 metric tons.

Of course, U.S. mussel consumption still pales compared to that in other, more seafood-savvy countries. Spain, for example, produces almost 200,000 metric tons of farmed mussels a year, while Italy and the Netherlands each produce about 100,000 metric tons a year to meet Europe’s huge appetite for the shellfish.

Mussels are getting big even in the United Kingdom, a country not normally associated with a passion for seafood. At the Big Mussel restaurant in Newcastle, a bellyful of blue bivalves is a bargain. Prepared any one of eight ways, a full kilo of mussels at the quayside bistro costs just $12, served with fries, mayo and bread.

Closer to home, mussels are beginning to show up on menus at family-dining restaurants like Olive Garden and Carrabba’s Italian Grill, a new Italian concept started by the wildly successful Outback Restaurant chain. If middle America acquires a taste for mussels, who knows where they could show up next. Are you ready for McMussels?

While fast-food mussels may be a stretch for Americans (Europeans in a hurry eat them fried with frites), it’s clear that there’s still a lot of room for growth in the U.S. mussel market. And supply — at least of imported mussels — doesn’t appear to be a problem.

In fact, there have been so many imported mussels coming in from Prince Edward Island lately that the largest mussel producer in the United States filed an anti-dumping claim this spring when delivered prices for live PEI mussels dropped below 80 cents a pound.

On Oct. 11, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced preliminary tariffs on two of the four PEI live blue mussel producers it investigated. Prince Edward Aqua Farms was assessed a 3.5 percent dumping margin while Confederation Cove received a 4.7 percent margin.

A rising tide of frozen, whole blue mussels from Canada, Chile and China is also finding markets in North America. Through June, imports of frozen blue mussels from Chile, for example, tripled, to 171 metric tons. Blanched and vacuum-packed, usually in 2-pound sleeves, whole, frozen mussels offer foodservice operators a no-risk way to menu mussels without fear of dead loss and shrink.

Broadline foodservice distributors who aren’t set up to handle live shellfish can now offer operators a blue mussel option, says one distributor, who has just started buying container loads of frozen mussels from China.

Frozen mussels, of course, are nothing new. Kiwi mussel farmers have dominated the frozen mussel industry for decades, sending their trademarked greenshell mussels around the world.

The demand for greenshells, which are about 30 percent larger than most blue mussels, has expanded to the point where New Zealand farmers are growing more than 70,000 metric tons a year. Last year, New Zealand exported to the United States almost 10,000 metric tons of greenshell mussels, almost all of which were frozen on the halfshell.

Closer to home, U.S. production of mussels has actually declined, from about 20,000 metric tons in 1990 to about 7,000 metric tons in 2000. The reason for the decline can be traced to a lack of demand for wild mussels, which are harvested by draggers off the New England coast and sold ungraded for as little as 20 cents to 25 cents a pound.

“The market for cheap mussels is dying,” says one of the East Coast’s largest mussel producers. “People these days want mussels that are cleaned and graded, and they’re willing to pay more.”

 Shellfish farmers in Washington state have made their mark growing Mediterranean mussels on ropes in Puget Sound. Bigger and faster-growing than the local blue mussel, Mediterraneans now account for the bulk of Washington’s annual mussel harvest of about 1,000 metric tons, almost all of which is grown by two large farms.

Another advantage of Mediterranean mussels is that they spawn in the winter, so they’re in peak condition in the summer, when the meat yield from blue mussels is typically lower after their spring spawn.

Mussel farmers in Washington have also started growing sterilized triploid mussels, which are in prime condition year-round since they don’t spawn.

In Maine, which produces more than 80 percent of the U.S. mussel harvest, almost all the production is either bottom-cultured or wild-harvested blue mussels. In bottom culture, producers drag seed mussels up from the bottom and distribute them on leased areas where growing conditions are ideal.

When the mussels have matured, they are dragged from the bottom and delivered to a plant, where they are held in saltwater tanks to purge themselves of any sand or grit. After they are purged, they are scrubbed, graded and debearded.

New England mussel producers also drag mature mussels from wild beds and follow the same purging and grading procedures as they do with bottom-cultured mussels. Although a growing number of permits have been issued to produce rope-grown blue mussels in Maine, so far production is less than 100 tons a year.

As is the case in Washington state, where rope-growers could rapidly increase production if they could use the permits they already have, a balky bureaucracy and active opposition from adjacent landowners handicaps the Maine rope-grown industry.

Supply outlook

If you’re looking for more blue mussels, don’t worry. Although the growth in production from Prince Edward Island is slowing, supplies should be ample again next year. Production of mussels from Prince Edward Island in 2001 should hit 16,000 metric tons, almost double the harvests of five years ago and an increase of about 10 percent from last year.

About half of PEI’s mussel production is marketed in the United States, with the remainder going to markets in Canada. In terms of market share, PEI accounts for more than 90 percent of the U.S. supply of rope-grown live mussels. Look for long-term PEI production growth to slow down to a sustainable level of about 10 to 15 percent a year.

Supplies of rope-grown Mediterranean and blue mussels from U.S. growers should remain at about 1,000 metric tons again in 2002.

Limited quantities of Mediterranean mussels from British Columbia may begin showing up on the U.S. market before long. The B.C. growing conditions are good, and there’s a lot more coastline with far fewer landowners to complain. If Washington’s two large producers decide to expand into the province, production could grow quickly.

In Maine, a new program to get fishermen to invest in mussel rafts has been introduced, but significant production from these growers is still at least two years down the road. However, whether Maine producers can compete with the PEI industry, which enjoys substantial economies of scale and the advantage of a weak Canadian dollar, remains a big question mark.

Supplies of true bottom-cultured mussels from Maine are expected to be about the same in 2002, as the state has only one large producer and that company has already leased the maximum acreage the state allows any one aquaculture operation to lease.

Supplies of graded wild mussels from New England, on the other hand, can be expected to increase as demand continues to grow; the size of the market — not the resource — is the limiting factor.

After quickly growing production to a level of 2,500 metric tons in just a few years, Newfoundland mussel producers have found that selling mussels — at least live mussels — is harder than growing them. Now that they have figured out they can’t compete with PEI growers who can drive their bivalves to Boston, Newfoundland producers have decided to stake their future on frozen, value-added mussels.

“It makes more sense for us,” says one of two large Newfoundland seafood processors who planned to produce almost 1,000 metric tons of finished product this year. “It gives our plant something to do when we’re not processing shrimp or crab.”

One of Europe’s largest and most successful value-added mussel producers has also invested in a processing plant in the Canadian province, so look for a steady increase in the supplies of frozen mussels from Newfoundland in future years.

There are also plenty of frozen, whole blue mussels from Chile and China to meet the demand of this growing market segment. Chilean producers, with the help of European importers, have made significant investments in both production and processing facilities, primarily to meet the need for a wide variety of value-added mussel products in the European market.

Rope-grown production of Chile’s native blue mussel, which has already reached almost 20,000 metric tons a year, could increase rapidly, given the country’s natural environmental and regulatory advantages.

In terms of mussel production, though, China is king. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, China produces more than 400,000 metric tons a year of various mussel species, including two that are very similar to the New Zealand greenshell mussel and the North American blue mussel. If past experience is anymeasure, Chinese production will expand much faster than the country’s development of new markets.

After a decade of impressive growth, production from the New Zealand mussel industry could be off by as much as 15 to 20 percent in 2001. A shortage of high-quality spat, which is gathered from beaches on the North Island and transported to farms in Marlborough Sound in the South Island, has been a problem for farmers. In addition, low nutrient levels in the heavily farmed mussel regions are resulting in reduced harvests.

Longer term, New Zealand’s mussel industry is trying to expand into additional growing areas on the North Island, as the Marlborough Sounds area is fully utilized. But the lack of spat will likely prevent rapid expansion.

In addition, the New Zealand mussel industry is finding itself in a battle with environmentalists and landowners doggedly fighting the industry’s efforts to develop new sites.

Price trends

Mussels might not be quite the buy they were in 2001, but for the most part they will still be a pretty good deal.

The price war in PEI that drove the delivered price of live mussels down to 70 cents a pound this spring and inspired the anti-dumping charges has subsided. By summer, prices delivered to Boston buyers recovered to between 80 cents and 90 cents a pound. Since PEI dominates the U.S. market for rope-grown mussels, don’t be surprised if prices bump up another nickel or more in 2002 as production slows.

The price of rope-grown Me-diterranean mussels to West Coast distributors should stay relatively firm at an average of about $1.50 to $1.75 a pound, due to the limited supply.

Prices to distributors for bottom-cultured and graded wild mussels have been steady for the past few years, averaging between 60 cents and 70 cents a pound, f.o.b. Boston, depending on size, grade and order volume. These prices should remain steady in 2002.

The market for frozen, value-added, whole blue mussels, on the other hand, could soften unless producers are successful in finding new markets for their increasing production. Depending upon the type of product, meat yield, size and order volume, distributors have been paying prices averaging between $1.10 and $1.50 a pound. If product starts pouring in, especially from China, prices could decrease a dime or more.

Expect to pay the price for the shortfall in the supply of New Zealand greenshell mussels. Importers raised the price of frozen halfshells this year by about 20 cents, to $1.90 to $2.20 a pound, depending on size. A very weak Kiwi dollar and growing supplies of frozen blue mussels should keep greenshell prices from going much higher in 2002.

The price of frozen, whole, vacuum-packed greenshells has gone up to as high as $2.80 a pound for some of the best packs with severed adductor mussels.

Buying tips

The trick in buying mussels is to get the most meat for your money, so be prepared to sample product to determine actual meat yields both before and after cooking.

Once you determine what level of meat yield is acceptable for you and your customers, set a spec and stick with it.

 As a rule, rope-grown mussels have the highest meat content. In the case of greenshells and Mediterraneans, the meat-to-shell ratio of raw product can reach 50 percent or higher.

Rope-grown blue mussels can reach 40 percent, but 30 to 35 percent is normal. The meat yield from high-quality bottom-cultured and wild mussels should be about 20 percent.

But always remember that meat yield can vary considerably, depending upon the time of year. After a mussel spawns, its meat can shrink by as much as 25 to 50 percent. In North America, blue mussels typically spawn in the spring, so meat yields are lower in the warm-weather months.

The amount of food in the water also affects the size of the meat. In some areas where there are large concentrations of mussels, the meat content can be lower than in areas where there is more food. Make sure your mussel supplier samples the product before it is harvested and guarantees a specified meat yield.

Also, when talking about meat yield, make sure you and the supplier are on the same page: Is it before cooking, or after cooking? There’s a big difference.

After a mussel spawns, it will also be considerably weaker, which will result in a shorter shelf life. Under ideal conditions, debearded mussels held on ice will stay alive as long as two weeks, but that shelf life can be cut in half after spawning.

If dead-loss and low meat yields are problems, consider trying a frozen, whole mussel during periods when quality of live product is an issue. Frozen-mussel producers will gladly guarantee a certain meat yield. Frozen mussels may cost more on a per-pound basis, but if you analyze just the cost of the meat, it can be comparable, especially after you factor in dead-loss.

Sample frozen mussels from several suppliers and countries of origin before making any final decisions. You may be surprised what you learn.

If a live mussel is gaping, don’t immediately assume it is dead. Immerse it in cold water first to see if it closes its shell.

Culinary notes

Mussels are an easy way to spice up any menu and give exotic appeal at a very profitable price. If you’re featuring an Asian dish, for example, you can add a half-dozen halfshell greenshells to a Thai Seafood Stew for a food cost of less than 50 cents. Or you can serve a Spanish Mussel and Chorizo Soup, using blue or Mediterranean mussels that cost less than 75 cents.

Most restaurants feature mussels as an appetizer, typically simmering half a pound of whole mussels in a wine, butter and garlic sauce. However you serve mussels, though, be careful not to overcook them. And remember that frozen mussels are already cooked, so all you have to do is heat them long enough to absorb the flavor of the sauce.  

Mussels are a great addition to traditional soups. Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert makes a hardy Pistou Vegetable Soup with Mussels that gets its distinctive flavor from the  mussel broth.

And more innovative chefs are adding a few mussels to their traditional fish entrées. For a minimal food cost, mussels add a lot to the value of a dish.