China’s largest seaweed firm eyes foreign markets after $16m factory acquisition

[China] China’s largest seaweed producer and processor has acquired a processing factory and aims to sell more to Japan, Europe and North America, although it may come up against firms which want consumers to eat more locally-produced seaweed in those markets.

Dalian Kowa Foods — which is a joint venture between two firms from China and Japan — acquired a Dalian-based, 40,000-square-meter factory from Japanese food company Riken Food for CNY 100 million ($15.9m) in 2016.

Although the firm is still yet to move in to the plant, Kowa will produce value-added seaweed and seafood products at the factory, such as Chinese-style meals and salads. Half of the firm’s products are exported.

“We have been waiting to move into the factory. We’ve been doing work to it,” explained Hedy Zhang of Kowa to Undercurrent News at the North America Seafood Expo, adding that the original owners had upped sticks to move to Southeast Asia. “They [Riken] felt perhaps in China the cost of labor had increased,” she said.

Kowa farmed and processed 25,000 metric tons of seaweed farmed in Bohai Sea, according to the firm. Meanwhile, according to the China Fisheries Yearbook, China produced 2.1m metric tons of seaweed in 2015.

Some of that — approximately 200t — was exported to the UK.

Tim van Berkel, managing director of seaweed harvester The Cornish Seaweed Company, told Undercurrent the UK imports “a lot” of seaweed compared with what is harvested locally. But his firm hopes Brits will choose more locally-harvested coastal fare, such as kelp, dulse, sea spaghetti, sea lettuce and Irish moss.

“We hardly use any local seaweed. It’s all very new,” he said. “Seaweed has never been an industry in England. In Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland the volumes are a lot larger. But even so. We’re just not used to it.”

Cornish Seaweed harvests 10,000-12,000 kilograms of seaweed annually, which grows naturally off the coast of Cornwall, southwest England. It makes the firm England’s largest seaweed harvester, he reckons.

To harvest seaweed divers “trim” seaweed with scissors year-round. The seaweed is dried on racks, packed typically without additional processing and ready-to-eat. Some seaweed is used in skincare products in collaboration with a local firm. The firm is also working on seaweed crackers and biscuits, said van Berkel.

“We’re still very small,” he said. The firm’s turnover is £150,000-£160,000. “It’s not bad — we’ve been growing organically.”

Europe and North America are still minnows in the seaweed consumption stakes. According to International Trade Center, the UK imported £11.2m worth of seaweed for human consumption, making it the EU’s biggest importer. By comparison, Japan imported $221m worth, mainly from its East Asian neighbors South Korea and China.

Asia has historically been the center of seaweed cultivation and consumption and it “will probably remain so, although the West is slowly catching up”, said van Berkel.

“Although we’ll probably be using seaweed for a lot of different things rather than culinary use. A lot of seaweed will be used for biofuels, bioplastics and other compounds, rather than the plant itself being used just for food.”

According to the UK’s Soil Association, there are just two licensed seaweed companies in England, although a couple more firms are currently looking to acquire producer licenses, said Natasha Collins-Daniel, head of public relations.

Last year, the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council launched a joint standard for seaward, in recognition of “the growing market for seaweed in a wide range of products, including food, cosmetics, medicines and fertilizers,” the two groups said.

In July of last year, UK government-backed project SeaGas announced it had harvested a 20-metric-ton batch of sugar kelp. Described as the largest harvest of farmed seaweed in the UK to date, the kelp was set to be used to assess the viability seaweed in bioenergy production.


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