Irish oysters an annual €6m success story in China
Product now on sale in some of the top oyster bars frequented by expanding middle class
Kian Louët-Feisser of the Carlingford Oyster Company hard at work. Photograph: Carlingford Oyster Company
Chinese diners are shelling out for Irish oysters like never before as oyster farmers enjoy an unprecedented demand for their product from Asia.
The value of Irish oyster sales to China increased by 83 per cent between 2017 and 2018 and another boost in figures is expected when 2019 figures are totted up, according to Bord Bia.
Irish seafood export values to China had increased by 33 per cent up to September 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, according to its seafood sector manager Karen Devereux.
“So, the strong performance of Irish seafood in this market continues apace and oysters are a key part of that. Irish oysters are a real success story in China with annual sales of around €6 million.”
She says they are now on sale in some of the most prestigious oyster bars, hotel chains, restaurants and premium supermarkets frequented by China’s growing middle class, in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
“In fact, China is now Ireland’s second largest market for Irish oyster exports.”
For many years, France was the only export market for Irish oysters which were sold in bulk to the wholesale market. But several years ago growers began installing facilities to allow them pack and brand their oysters. This opened up new of markets, with China the leading one.
The Irish oyster is seen as a premium and pure product that comes from clean waters surrounding a green island. A few dozen Chinese buyers have travelled here to see how oyster farms operate. And they supped on seafood chowder when stopping off at Carlingford Oyster Company, recalls Kian Louët-Feisser who runs the family business.
Asia accounts for almost one-third of his oyster sales today.
“Four years ago, if you were at the China Fisheries Show talking to a Chinese person about Ireland, they would say, ‘what’s Ireland’? They didn’t even know it was a country. At the last show in October people were actively looking for Irish oysters; that’s really cool.”
Before Brexit reared its head, the Carlingford Oyster Company was selling 80 per cent of its product to Britain. Louët-Feisser quickly realised he should not put all his oysters in one basket. There wasn’t much difference in the air freight costs to Europe and China, but the latter offered a premium price for the product.
“But you must have very good quality. Every oyster has to be absolutely perfect.”
What about reputation?
China grows one million tonnes of oysters a year – 10 times more than the whole of Europe produces – so it knows its oysters. In fact, Irish oysters have built up such a reputation that the growers have to be careful to protect their product from counterfeiters who are looking for a premium price for an inferior product.
Louët-Feisser says the past 12 months has been a rollercoaster, because of Brexit and the drive to find new customers.
“After the experience of Brexit, we would be very wary. We wouldn’t want to have one market accounting for more than one-third of sales because if something happens to that market, where does it leave you?”
Now that Carlingford Oyster Company has found its feet in China, it is looking to other Asian markets and sent their first shipment to Taiwan recently.
“There are great opportunities out there,” says Louët-Feisser. “When my father started this company in 1974, you couldn’t give away oysters. Today it’s a premium product. We’re really on the map now.”