FrozenFoodsBiz BUZZ

Main Event in Maine Lobster Promotion Is Soft Sell of New Shell in Home Market

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By John Saulnier, FFB Editorial Director

Look for more Maine lobster to be sold through value-added channels in the United States this year, as anticipated hefty harvests coupled with the still ongoing US-China tariff tiff and choppy export waters in Europe make domestic sales all the more important.

Tail Splits“We’re focusing on the United States, and a big part of our campaign will be promoting the ‘Maine Lobster Experience’ to restaurant chefs,” Marianne LaCroix, marketing director at the Portland-based Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC), told during Seafood Expo North America in Boston.

There’s no surprise in this strategy, considering that the import tax Beijing has slapped on US lobster products in the tit for tat US-China trade war has deeply dampened demand for Maine’s most lucrative seafood export to the PRC, which in 2017 bought more than $128 million worth of the popular crustacean. Add to this the 6% to 20% tariff disadvantage that American lobster exporters face in competition with Canadian rivals in the European Union, where US lobstermen used to ring up about $200 million in annual sales, and it’s plain to see why the MLMC is hard at work drumming up new business in the homeland.

Lukes shacks and restaurantsAmong the 15 Maine lobster exhibitors at the Boston show were suppliers of frozen value-added products and processing plant operators, including Cozy Harbor Seafood, Greenhead Lobster, Luke’s Lobster, Ready Seafood and Shucks Maine Lobster. Homarus americanus, the star of their expanding product lines, was the main topic of conversation they engaged in with seafood buyers and distributors attending a March 18 reception hosted by the MLMC at the Exchange Conference Center on the Boston Fish Pier, where the keynote speaker was Governor Janet T. Mills.

Impressive Results in 2018

“The Maine lobster industry had another exceptional year in 2018, as harvesters landed more than $484 million worth of lobsters – an increase of $46 million over the previous year,” she happily reported.

“When combined with the value added by Maine dealers, the overall contribution to Maine’s economy totaled nearly $2 billion,” added the governor. “Landings also reached historic levels at just under 120 million pounds.”

lob fishermanDescribing the lobster industry as the “bedrock of our state’s coastal economy,” she pointed out that more than 4,800 commercial harvesters are engaged in the business along with nearly 300 wholesale dealers who support local communities, provide jobs and help sustain a unique and treasured way of life.

According to Marianne LaCroix, over 100 million pounds of lobster have been landed in Maine by small day boats annually for the past eight years. That is more than twice the per annum volume that typically tipped the scales a decade or so ago.

Sustainability is an important aspect of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, which received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in 2013. The industry, which has been self-regulating for more than 150 years, relies totally on manual harvesting techniques, one trap at a time, to assure quality of habitat. Diving or dragging the sea floor to catch lobster has been prohibited since 1961.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, founded in 2013, has a budget of approximately $2 million to promote the state’s lobster image and brand awareness among end users far and wide and increase demand in foodservice and retail sectors. It is funded by fees paid by harvesters, dealers and processors, with much of the support generated from commercial harvester license surcharges.

Maine ranks as the largest lobster producing state in the nation, accounting for approximately 80% of the total catch. From claw to tail, the MLMC aims to see more Americans enjoying its prized shellfish products in 2019.

“Our lobster industry is active year-round, though most volume is landed in the summer and fall,” said LaCroix. “Consumers increasingly appreciate the sweet flavor and tenderness of Maine New Shell Lobster, which becomes available after old shells are shed and new ones are grown in the summertime.”

Noting that the seasonal delicacy is generally only available during the peak harvest period of June through November, the marketing director added that the distinct taste of easy to crack and eat Maine lobster is enhanced by the region’s clean, cold seawater that fills newly formed soft shells and naturally “marinates” the meat.

Four Seasons for Frozen

Of course, quick freezing technology means that top quality products are available during every season – and an increasing variety of value-added retail packs from the state’s producers are found in the frozen food sections of supermarkets and grocery stores across the United States.

One such offering is the Maine Lobster Kit from Saco-based Luke’s Lobster, which proclaims: “You can enjoy a taste of New England no matter how far you are from the coast.” The 226-gram package features thaw and ready-to-eat knuckle and claw meat along with the special seasoning used to make lobster rolls at the company’s New York City-headquartered restaurant chain that now has upwards of 40 outlets operating under its banner in North America, Japan and China.

Cozy Harbor lobster meatPortland-based Cozy Harbor offers nitrogen frozen raw lobster tails, whole cooked lobster and cooked lobster meats in a variety of sizes for both retail and foodservice markets. Founded in 1980, it has grown to become the largest processor of lobster in the USA.

Cozy Harbor products have received numerous awards from judges and juries in recent years, including a double win in the 2017 Seafood Excellence Global competition in Brussels held in conjunction with the largest seafood show in the world. The company beat out a field of 54 finalists to take the grand prize for its Tail Claw Knuckle Meat Retail pack, and also won a grand prize for a retail line featuring split tails, twin lobster tails, tail claw knuckle meat and claw knuckle meat.

Greenhead Lobsters Party PackProduced at the largest lobster port in the state, Greenhead Lobster’s 10-pound Party Pack contains 30 to 35 flash-frozen tails, depending on size. The Stonington, Maine-based supplier positions this crowd pleaser as “perfect for holidays, grilling or tailgating.”

Situated on the southern portion of Deer Isle, Stonington is well known for its historic tradition of lobster fishing, and Greenhead has been in the business since 1997. Working with a reliable fleet of dedicated lobstermen, owner Hugh Reynolds oversees every aspect of the operation from his dockside domain.

Then there’s the Brussels Prix D’Elite winning “EZ Shuck” Maine Lobster product line from Shucks Maine Lobster. The Richmond-based company employs innovative high pressure processing (HPP) technology to loosen raw meat from the shell, producing high quality products that are easy to use, less messy and highly versatile.

For those who may require another reason to enjoy lobster sourced from the bountiful Atlantic Ocean waters off the coast of the USA’s most northeasterly state, the MLMC is keen to spotlight the “nautical nutrition” benefits of Homarus americanus. Maine Lobster serves up an abundance of lean protein that is low in saturated fat. What’s more, it is rich in vitamin B12 and essential minerals including copper, zinc and selenium.

What’s not to like about this nutritious and delicious red gastronomic delight from the ocean blue? Especially when it’s steamed in beer and served with a frosty mug of lager or a glass of wine. So get cracking, and bottoms up!