A Canadian delicacy claws its way back into the market

Lobster is so popular these days, McDonald's ditched its McLobster due to higher prices. Still, things are looking up for the 'chicken of the sea'

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Lobsters are not easy on the eyes. The first person to discover that these hideous crustaceans were edible deserves a medal.

Lobster was once the poor man’s protein and fed mainly to prisoners. These days, the chicken of the sea is enjoying more love than ever – U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron recently dined on blue lobster at the Eiffel Tower.

Prices are up and demand is high – things are looking up for the lobster industry.

Lobster’s popularity, however, has recently forced some food service companies to alter their menus. McDonald’s Restaurants ceased offering McLobster in the Atlantic region this summer due to higher prices.

All Atlantic provinces and Quebec harvest lobsters, with Nova Scotia the largest producer by far. The industry is valued at over $1 billion, twice as much as in 2010. Suppliers can’t keep up with the growing global appetite for lobster. Canadian lobster exports to China have tripled since 2012; it‘s even sold online to China, thanks to Alibaba.

But the lobster industry has had its lean times. For several years, lobster was not only cheap, it was relatively unpopular. Other than in the Atlantic region, by way of curious tourists and lobsters boils, it was barely an afterthought.

As a result, the industry marketed lobster as an ingredient rather than a dish on its own. Lobster burritos, beer, donuts – lobster anything could be found on menus from coast to coast. The industry discovered that selling lobster as an ingredient attracted a different kind of consumer, one who’s not keen on going through the effort of eating an entire lobster. After all, not all consumers are true Maritimers.

Lobster meat actually makes a strong case for itself, health-wise. While it’s considered a rich and indulgent feast, it actually contains fewer calories than an equal portion of skinless chicken breast. It’s also a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, and vitamins E, B12 and B6.

The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which is about to be implemented, will give Canada’s harvesters a significant boost over those from Maine. Europeans will soon buy Canadian lobster tariff-free, while paying a surcharge to Americans. Once freight and shrinkage fees are included, lobsters can get expensive, so CETA can make a significant difference.

Europe imported more than US$150 million in lobster from America last year, slightly less than what Canada exported. With help from the lower Canadian dollar, the agreement makes our products more financially attractive to a continent teeming with affluent and hungry consumers.

This issued could be raised during upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations. But CETA could also benefit Americans since they send a good portion of their lobster catch to Canada for processing.

With this momentum, it’s crucial not to price the product out of the retail market. These days, a $30 lobster roll isn’t unusual and such high prices may scare away consumers. This happened with beef a few years ago. Given the perception that lobster is mostly a luxury product, it won’t take much for consumers to walk away.

The industry, supported by the Lobster Council of Canada, is doing things right and continuing to make the commodity more accessible is key to lobster’s success. The industry just adopted a branding strategy to tell the Canadian story. This is timely, since there were suspicions about global mislabelling of Canadian lobster.

The industry has had its share of success and failure, but it appears to be taking control of its destiny. You rock, lobster.

Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, dean of the Faculty of Management and a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, and author of Food Safety, Risk Intelligence and Benchmarking, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2017).

atlantic lobster eating lobster


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